Reviewed by Rob Spence
Josephine Tey was a writer of unusual detective fiction in the so-called Golden Age of the genre. Her best-known, and most unusual novel was The Daughter of Time, in which a policeman recovering in hospital tries to rehabilitate the reputation of Richard III, concluding that the princes in the tower were not victims of their uncle. The book probably had some influence in the growth of interest in revisionist histories of the Wars of the Roses, recently highlighted in the agitation from the Richard III Society following the discovery of what were probably his remains in Leicester in 2012 to have him reburied in suitably regal style at York.
Tey was a very private individual by all accounts, and intimate details of her life are hard to come by. She wrote successful plays for the stage and radio, was friendly with such luminaries as the Gielgud brothers and Edith Evans, and moved in bohemian circles. So it’s a brilliant idea to use her as the central character in a series of crime novels, in which her back story is fleshed out in fictional detail while she attempts to solve crimes with the help of her Scotland Yard chum Archie Penrose.
Nicola Upson’s series has now reaches its sixth volume, and this one uses the backdrop of the BBC’s coverage of the 1937 coronation of George VI to present a tale of murder, jealousy and deceit at Broadcasting House. The narrative weaves in some real events – the Coronation, obviously, but also the radio adaptation of Tey’s play Queen of Scots (moved forward a few years by Upson), the Hitchcock film version of her novel A Shilling for Candles, and some newsworthy incidents of the time. Upson is clearly conscientious about her research, and it shows – the evocation at the beginning of the novel of the BBC at its Reithian height is fascinating in its detail. Much of the opening third of the novel is scene setting, but the leisurely pace never drags, because the reader is engaged, particularly with the complex character of Josephine Tey and the tangled web of her relationships. Tey is portrayed as a self-doubting, tentative type, whose emotions are never far from the surface. In this narrative, she not only has to come to a major decision about the person she loves, but also attempt to identify a killer. The tale quickens after the moment of the first murder (about which, unusually for a detective novel, the reader is given full details, including the identity of the murderer) and the dénouement satisfyingly draws together a number of disparate threads, including, in classic Agatha Christie style, the repercussions of events that took place years before the central narrative.
Upson’s eye for detail produces some very satisfying descriptions of the London scene in 1937. She’s particularly good at identifying the key physical element in a scene, whether outside or in, and the reader is drawn completely into the world she evokes. There’s also some post-modern play, too, as is inevitable, I suppose, when writing in a genre that’s already been parodied to death. Upson doesn’t go as far as Gilbert Adair did in his Christie pastiches, but there are some nice touches. For instance, the protagonist is always referred to as “Josephine” or “Miss Tey” despite the fact that this was a pseudonym, so presumably her friends would not have used it. Her real name, Elizabeth Mackintosh, is never mentioned. So Upson’s fictionalised character, though a ‘real’ person, is known by her pen-name in the storyworld of the novel. There’s an intertextual reference to Christie’s Miss Marple as well, and Penrose is not unlike Alan Grant, the recurring detective figure of Tey’s novels. Val Gielgud’s thriller Death at Broadcasting House, is referenced, by a character who is based on him. The novel is divided into sections with titles that allude to other works of the twenties and thirties: Private Lives refers to Noel Coward’s play; Vile Bodies to Evelyn Waugh’s novel; The Wild Party to Joseph Moncure March’s narrative poem of the jazz age; and The End of the Affair to Graham Greene’s novel. Upson’s title, which is also given to one of the sections, is an allusion to Louis Macneice’s 1939 poem of the same name, in which he describes a city on the brink of war:
The rain of London pimples
The ebony street with white
And the neon lamps of London
Stain the canals of night
And the park becomes a jungle
In the alchemy of night.
The sense of unease behind the brightness and the glitter is captured there, and that atmosphere is reproduced in the world of the novel. Upson artfully juxtaposes the sense of renewal engendered by the coronation with the darker concerns of the murder investigation, against a backdrop of international tension.
Although the contemporary references and incidental detail are, as I mentioned, very well done, I did have the odd quibble. For instance, did police cars have sirens in 1937? My impression from films and books is that a bell would have been more likely. In one scene, a character is trying to phone another, and eventually goes around to the house, where the reason for the lack of response is said to be that the phone’s lead had been taken out of its socket. But phones weren’t like that then – you’d need a screwdriver to disconnect it. And if it was, the person calling would not have heard a ringing tone. At another point, someone says that her calls have not been returned – but in those days, you’d have no idea if someone had called you when you were out. This is pedantry on my part, to be sure, but in the context of what seems to have been really well-researched period detail, a little irritating.
That aside, I found this a very enjoyable read. It takes some of the familiar elements of Golden Age detection, and adds a psychological depth often lacking in many of the novels of those years. The major characters are three-dimensional, with convincingly realised traits, and life-changing challenges to confront, so the focus is not all on the detection of the killer. Nicola Upson is new to me, and I’m delighted that Josephine Tey features in five other novels. I shall seek them out.
Rob Spence’s website is here.
Harriet also interviews Nicola Upson here.
Nicola Upson, London Rain (Faber: London, 2015). 9780571287758, 329pp., paperback orignal.