For whatever reasons, I have found in the past that I am not all that interested in the lives of mystery writers, even the well-known ones. There is a popular idea that you can learn things about fiction by finding comparisons between events in the author’s real life and those in her characters and plots. I have to say I’m skeptical, although it’s occasionally a kind of speculation in which I’ve indulged. Most of the real-life mystery writers I’ve known, and I’ve met quite a few in my day, are professionals at the craft of writing as well as its art. As a friend who shall remain nameless once put it to me conversationally, “People think I use their characteristics in real life and put them into books. If they only knew it’s so much more useful to just make shit up.”
Thus when I heard that someone had come up with the idea of writing a series of mysteries featuring Josephine Tey, well-known mystery writer of the 1930s, as the detective, I didn’t work up much enthusiasm. I’ve been disappointed in the past by a couple of novels that purport to put real-life mystery writers in the path of fictional murders, notably Dorothy and Agatha: A Mystery Novel by Gaylord Larsen from 1990 (meretricious and awful). I have not cared to speculate about where Agatha Christie was during those missing days in 1926 and so a novel that has her involved in political intrigue or murder during those days does not find a willing suspension of belief within me. Other attempts to convince me of the detective skills of various celebrities have also left me cold. Call it a quirk.
And so when I picked up, nearly at random, the first volume of seven novels by Nicola Upson — An Expert in Murder, today’s topic — I wasn’t expecting a whole lot and was prepared to set it aside if it was what I was expecting.
There are generally two ways in which I can tell I’ve just read a really good book. One is if I finish the book and immediately, without pausing for breath, start to read it from the beginning just to savour the pleasure again. I had that pleasant experience recently with The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by the erudite Martin Edwards. In a literal sense, unputdownable.
The other way is if I finish the book and immediately, without pausing for breath, get on the internet and order as many of the author’s other books as I can find. And that’s what happened to me today with Nicola Upson. I enjoyed this book so much that I wanted a lot more of the same, and immediately. This is the kind of reading material I’m always looking for and never finding.
As to why that is — happy to oblige. Certainly there is more than one reason. But given the above comments, I thought I should say first and foremost that this is the book that has changed my mind about the potential for putting real-life 20th century characters into fictional books. It totally works here, in my opinion.
I didn’t know much about Josephine Tey before I started this novel — well, not more than the average mystery bookstore proprietor, which is more than most people. Tey, I knew, was notoriously reclusive about her personal life. Immediately after I finished this novel I went to Wikipedia and confirmed a couple of dates, but I tried to see exactly where real life stopped and fiction began. To my pleasure I found that while the author had tried to portray the personality of Tey as it was known, there was a great deal of fuzziness about the rest of the details and occasionally outright substitution of a fictional character for a real person. I learned from the afterword, for instance, that a major character in the book should have been named as John Gielgud — it was he who played the lead in Richard of Bordeaux, but the character in the book who does so is, I believe, nothing much like him personally. And I like that. I don’t need to read about an ersatz Gielgud in a mystery, where he cannot possibly be the victim or the murderer; I like what Upson did here and it made for a very pleasant read. To hearken back to my writer friend, she made shit up, and she did it well.
So, yes, the detective here is Josephine Tey and for once that is not a silly or meretricious idea. Her personal circumstances are somewhat invented and somewhat real, but I truly believe the spirit of Tey is there.
The writing is smart; in fact intelligence shines through behind nearly every paragraph. The characterization is intelligent and a little bit spare, without overmuch detail so that verisimilitude arises naturally rather than being forced on you. The plot is clever, and Upson has the knack of getting you interested in the people and what’s going to happen to them. Good writing, good plotting, good characterization, all add up to a very readable book.
All things considered, I intend to pick up the next couple of paperback copies of this novel that go through my hands, just because I want to give a couple of friends something good to read; perhaps that’s the highest praise I can offer. To be honest, I’m not liking the second book in the series as much as this one, and I have a little bit of trepidation about the remainder of the series, but … An Expert in Murder is delightful and I think you’ll enjoy it.
A note on editions
I read an electronic edition of this book but I think the most attractive cover is immediately above, a Harper Perennial paperback from 2009; a nice piece of artwork showing a young woman in a long brown coat. I am very surprised that AbeBooks is listing copies of the true first, which I believe to be Faber & Faber 2008, at about the US$85 range; similar prices for the Harper hardcover, first US. That’s about twice what I would expect these to be selling for and I have no idea why; maybe book collectors liked this book as much as I did. I tend to buy first editions of books that I believe will have a long-term appeal to readers, and this would qualify.