Dear Little Corpses by Nicola Upson

Reviewed by Harriet

It’s the first of September 1939. Hitler has invaded Poland, and though Britain is not yet at war with Germany, there is widespread fear of potential bombing and subsequent civilian deaths. This has prompted the government to initiate a massive logistical exercise to evacuate children from their city homes to the countryside, where they will hopefully be safer. 

In the peaceful Suffolk village of Polstead, writer Josephine Tey is enjoying a quiet break with her partner Marta in the cottage she had recently and unexpectedly inherited. Although work, and family demands in Scotland, mean that she’s only a part-time resident, she has managed to make some good friends in the village. One of the closest is Hilary Lampton, the vicar’s wife, who, on this challenging morning, asks Josephine if she could help when the busload of evacuated children arrives. Relieved that her part-time status means she can’t be asked to take any of them in, she agrees. The arrangements have been efficiently made, households are being readied, a collection of residents will be there to show some friendly faces and man a refreshment table for the new arrivals. What could possibly go wrong?

A lot, as it turns out. The bus fails to arrive at the allotted time, not in itself for a cause for concern, but when news finally arrives, it turns out there are two buses on the way, both double deckers, crammed full of over-excited and hungry children. The driver of the first bus explains that everyone just piled in wherever they fancied, so the carefully prepared lists won’t tally at all. After some frantic phone calls, Hilary discovers that Polstead has the least problems of the whole area – a neighbouring village has six times its allocation. Meanwhile, 

The new arrivals swarmed about the playground, their emotions ranging from exhaustion to fear; in some, anxiety manifested itself as a blank stare, in others as a barely suppressed antagonism, and Josephine wondered what sort of an impact the arrival of so many strangers would have on a small, close-knit village, and how they would feel about their new home.

Amazingly, homes are found for all the children – or all apart from one, a ten-year-old boy named Noah, who seems to have lost his label. His young sister Betty is going to stay with the elderly Herron sisters, who live in a big, old-fashioned house, but they flatly refuse to take Noah. Finally, in desperation, Josephine agrees to let him stay at the cottage for a night until a solution is found.

If all this were not enough to cope with, another, and much more serious issue soon presents itself next day at the village fete. Four-year-old Annie Ridley is nowhere to be found. In fact she has been missing since the day before, when her parents thought she was with her grandmother, who runs the village shop, and her grandmother thought she was with her parents. Searches are set in motion, and soon Josephine’s friend Detective Inspector Archie Penrose, who’d been visiting the village with his new partner Virginia, also gets involved. But as the days go by, the situation gets increasingly desperate.

This is the bare bones of the plot, but there’s a lot more going on in this highly immersive novel. There are glimpses into the home lives of some of the evacuee families, and into those of the villagers. There’s Josephine’s new friendship with someone who lives in a nearby village, who just happens to be the celebrated detective fiction writer Margery Allingham: she and Josephine have never met before but know of each other’s work and find they get on extremely well. There’s Josephine’s initial anxiety about Noah, which grows into a mixture of liking, respect and worry as the days go by with no other home willing to take him, and disturbing facts start to emerge about his home life. And of course there’s her relationship with Marta, who has agreed to fly to California to help Alfred Hitchcock with a screenplay for a new film. As far as the village is concerned, they are just two friends who enjoy holidaying together: Marta’s unused bedroom would be an ideal place for Noah to stay, but the proprieties have to be kept up, so Noah has to sleep on the sofa. And running through it all is drama of the missing child, and the absolute desperation of the parents, whose every day makes it harder and harder to believe that Annie will be found alive. 

If you’re familiar with Upson’s earlier books in this series (this is number 10) you may be wondering where the murder comes in. Suffice it to say that it does, in the end, but not perhaps quite in the way you might have expected. But the novel is none the worse for that – in fact it was for me one of the best I have read in the series. Upson’s research is always admirable, and the picture here of life in 1939, primarily in the village but also in the city, was wholly convincing. Josephine and Marta’s relationship is heartwarming, despite the pressure to pretend they are just good friends. 

And then of course there’s the ongoing matter of fact vs fiction, which is central to these novels. Josephine Tey really existed, or at least a writer whose real name was Elizabeth MacIntosh used the pseudonym for her detective fiction. She was a contemporary of Margery Allingham (who is quoted in the novel and provides the title); there’s no evidence that the two writers met but they could have done. Alfred Hitchcock actually filmed one of Tey’s novels, A Shilling for Candles, renaming it Young and Innocent: he made changes to the plot which dismayed Tey greatly. Marta is evidently based on South African actress and director Marda Vanne, whose apparently passionate letter to Tey formed the basis of the fictional relationship in the novels. As for Archie Penrose, he doesn’t appear to have a direct real-life counterpart, but definitely resembles Tey’s fictional detective Allan Grant (who may of course have had his roots in someone Tey knew personally). Of course you don’t need to know any of this, but it adds an enjoyable layer if you do. 

Three of the previous Josephine Tey novels have been reviewed on Shiny (nos 8, 7 & 6) as was Upson’s fictional biography Stanley and Elsie, and there are a couple of Q&As (here and here) too if you’re interested. 

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Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Nicola Upson, Dear Little Corpses (Faber&Faber, 2022). 978-0571353286, 352pp., hardback.

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