Reviewed by Harriet
Nine Lessons is the seventh of Nicola Upson’s crime novels featuring the mystery writer Josephine Tey (1896-1952). I normally have a few reservations about the seemingly fashionable trend of making real writers the subject of fictional books, but I’ve been a fan of Josephine Tey’s brilliant crime novels for as long as I can remember and was curious enough to try the first of this series, An Expert in Murder, when it appeared in 2008. I enjoyed it enormously and have been following the series ever since. Some I’ve liked better than others, but this one is really on top form.
If you’ve never read any of these, here’s how it works. Josephine (actually a nom de plume, as her real name was Elizabeth MacIntosh) is, as she was in real life, a successful writer of plays, biographies, and of course crime novels. As her actual biography is a little shadowy, Upson has built on some existing evidence to give her a lover, the actress Marta (based on a real person), and a friend, Detective Inspector Archie Penrose, clearly based on Tey’s fictional Detective Inspector Grant. This blending of fact and fiction continues into the plots of the novels, and in my opinion works remarkably well.
There are two main threads to the plot of Nine Lessons, which is set in the late 1930s. As the novel begins, Archie is in London, where he is dealing with what is probably the most horrific murder of his career – a celebrated middle-aged musician has been imprisoned alive in a stone tomb and left to die in an unimaginably terrible way. This proves to be the first of a series of equally unpleasant crimes, the victims of which turn out to be linked by the fact that, twenty-five years earlier, they had all been members of the choir of Kings College Cambridge. What’s more, they had all been protégés of the Cambridge don and celebrated writer of ghost stories M.R. James, and Archie soon realises that there’s a link between the stories and the methods of murder.
Josephine, meanwhile, is in Cambridge, house-sitting for her lover Marta, who is in America. The town, usually so peaceful, is in a state of anxious turmoil as a serial rapist is attacking young women in their own homes. Already disturbed by these events, Josephine becomes more deeply involved when a young nurse, who lives next door, becomes the latest victim. If this were not enough, she becomes embroiled in a very sensitive situation concerning Archie’s lover Bridget. The two have recently reunited, having been parted at the start of WW1. Josephine has unwillingly become party to a secret of Bridget’s, which she is most anxious that Archie should not be told until she feels able to share it with him herself. This has put Josephine in an impossible situation, and her attempts to do something to improve matters only get her into deeper water.
Upson’s novels are always wonderfully evocative of the time period in which they are set, and this one is also particularly strong on place. Upson herself lives in Cambridge, and the town, where much of the action takes place, is evoked with great affection and familiarity. There’s also the Suffolk countryside and coast, and of course London.
Regular readers of the series won’t need any encouragement to keep up with the latest developments in Tey’s life and friendships. If you’re not one of them, no problem. Josephine and Archie are both attractive characters, so you’ll quickly get involved in their lives and be rooting for their friendship, which is put severely to the test here. Perfect – as publishers are wont to say – for lovers of classic crime with a contemporary twist.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Nicola Upson, Nine Lessons (Faber & Faber, 2017). 978-0571324774, 320pp., hardback.
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