The crime of

Clar­ity is a ca­su­alty of Ni­cola Up­son’s mur­der mys­tery, says Susie Maguire

The Herald - Arts - - Books -


AFaber £12.99 side from the com­pul­sory wear­ing of cloche hats, life in the 1930s might have been rather de­sir­able, par­tic­u­larly for women who love to read: it’s when some of the best fe­male crime writ­ers be­gan their ca­reers. One such was a Scot, Elis­a­beth Mack­in­tosh, who wrote plays un­der the pseu­do­nym Gor­don Daviot and nov­els as Josephine Tey. She’s prob­a­bly best known for the 1932 play Richard of Bordeaux, which gave John Giel­gud his first ma­jor the­atri­cal suc­cess, and for her in­ge­nious re-ex­am­i­na­tion of the rep­u­ta­tion of Richard III in the novel The Daugh­ter of Time (1951).

Most of her other books fea­ture the qui­etly charis­matic De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Alan Grant and his glam­orous (pla­tonic) friend and lead­ing ac­tress of the Lon­don stage, Marta Hal­lard. Tey’s fa­mil­iar­ity with the the­atri­cal mi­lieu pro­vided the con­text for a num­ber of clever fiction plots, play­ing with themes of false iden­tity, es­cape from fam­ily ex­pec­ta­tions, and re­venge for in­jus­tice. About Tey’s per­sonal life lit­tle is known, which is, of course, a gift to a 21st-cen­tury nov­el­ist writ­ing crime fiction set in that pe­riod – and what could be bet­ter than to re­visit it through the ex­pe­ri­ences of the bril­liantly ob­ser­vant Miss Tey her­self?

As a first novel, Ni­cola Up­son’s An Ex­pert in Mur­der is com­mend­able in its am­bi­tion. Clearly an en­thu­si­ast for theatre, Up­son de­ploys a mix­ture of fic­tional char­ac­ters and real habitues of that world of thes­pian dreams and back­stage dra­mas. Her story, writ­ten in the third per­son,

be­gins with Tey trav­el­ling to Lon­don by train to view the last per­for­mance of her fa­mous play. Shar­ing her car­riage is El­speth Sim­mons, a young milliner, and – coin­ci­den­tally – a great ad­mirer of Daviot’s/Tey’s work. In­deed, Sim­mons, whom we learn is adopted, is on her way to meet her swain, a young man some­how con­nected with the play’s pro­duc­tion, and – coin­ci­den­tally again – her un­cle is a col­lec­tor of the­atri­cal mem­o­ra­bilia. Up­son man­ages to pack a lot of in­for­ma­tion and in­trigue into th­ese open­ing pages, and if you like your crime fiction com­pli­cated, re­liant on dou­ble-hand­fuls of co­in­ci­dence and burst­ing with red her­rings, then you’ll read on with gusto. How­ever, as the novel con­tin­ues into whodunnit ter­ri­tory, with the in­tro­duc­tion of a mur­der filled with sym­bol­ism, a Grant- tem­plate de­tec­tive in­spec­tor and his flat­footed sub­or­di­nates, and sundry the­atri­cal per­son­al­i­ties with bo­hemian private lives, the plot tan­gles into mul­ti­ple knots.

Com­par­i­son of Up­son’s writ­ing abil­ity with Tey’s is in­evitable, and the first ca­su­alty is lan­guage. Up­son’s cast speak anachro­nis­ti­cally, us­ing ex­pres­sions like “get smashed”, “get on my tits” and “kept it to­gether”. An ac­tor re­marks, with­out irony, upon some­one “act­ing strangely” and, though Tey is ap­par­ently “pos­sessed of a puck­ish, sar­cas­tic wit”, we don’t find ev­i­dence of it here. The sec­ond and worst ca­su­alty is our sym­pa­thy; whereas Tey could en­ter­tain and tease with an ar­ray of pos­si­ble sus­pects, and make us like and un­der­stand her vil­lains, Up­son has so many – char­ac­ters, sus­pects, and vil­lains – none of whom are par­tic­u­larly sym­pa­thetic, that who killed whom and why even­tu­ally ceases to be of in­ter­est. By the end, with the in­evitable pas­sages of reve­la­tion about how all the co­in­ci­dences tie up, cul­mi­nat­ing in a very lengthy speech from the gun-wield­ing mur­derer in emo­tional ex­tremis, and fol­lowed by reams of back-story ex­pla­na­tion, the whole thing top­ples into melo­drama.

“God, it’s like some­thing out of a Greek tragedy,” re­marks the cop­per, but it’s even more like a French farce. Set­ting a story in a his­tor­i­cal con­text makes it much riskier to carry off, if it brings the ne­ces­sity to pro­vide huge tracts of ex­pla­na­tion to mod­ern read­ers. Up­son is ham­strung not just by that, but by her own the­atri­cal­ity: she does more telling than show­ing, re­ly­ing on the char­ac­ters’ di­a­logue to con­vey in­for­ma­tion at length, hold­ing them off­stage un­til they’re needed to il­lu­mi­nate the murk. In ad­di­tion, de­spite in­vented episodes of past love and loss, one never re­ally sees Josephine Tey as a per­son, with a writer’s in­ner life.

Us­ing Tey as the fo­cal point for a se­ries of crime nov­els is a great idea, but this de­but per­for­mance feels like a mis­fire. It’s to be hoped that fur­ther episodes will bring the au­thor more as­sured­ness of fo­cus and style, in keep­ing with her fic­tional hero­ine’s own.

Ni­cola Up­son plunges her his­tor­i­cal hero­ine into a world of the­atri­cal in­trigue

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