Shot with Crimson by Nicola Upson

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Reviewed by Harriet

This is the eleventh novel in Nicola Upson’s Josephine Tey historical crime series; we’ve reviewed four of them on here as well as her standalone fictional biography Stanley and Elsie. Crime novelist Josephine Tey really existed, though her real name was Elizabeth MacKintosh. She is the fictional centre of the novels: though not usually actually solving crimes, she is always close to the centre of whatever drama is going on, which generally includes her longtime police detective friend Archie Penrose. In this novel the action is spread across two continents, part of it taking place in England and part in California. It’s September 1939, and Britain is on the brink of war with Germany, something which has a strong effect on Josephine’s feelings as she heads for the liner Queen Mary, about to set off for the United States:

This impatience to get away had little to do with the romance of travel or the thrill of America. Whichever way she looked at it, the ticket she clutched in her hand smacked of running away, but she didn’t care. For the moment, all she longed for was to see Marta again, and to put as much distance as she could between herself and the memories of the last few days.

Marta, as regular readers will know, is Josephine’s lover, who has recently begun working for Alfred Hitchcock. He is just starting the filming of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, his first ever Hollywood film. Josephine has some qualms about the prospect of meeting him again, as she was distinctly unhappy with his recent film adaptation of her novel A Shilling for Candles, but the prospect of a holiday with Marta on the glorious Californian coast has overridden her doubts.

Back in England, meanwhile, a young man named James Bartholomew is revisiting Milton Hall, a stately home in Suffolk where he was stationed as a young orderly when it became a troop hospital in World War One. The reason for his visit this time is that Milton Hall was the childhood home of du Maurier, who James remembers meeting as a six-year-old child. He is now responsible for making accurate, intricate models of the house – said by du Maurier to be her main inspiration for Manderley – for use in the film. His visit stirs up many uncomfortable memories, which end in precipitating an act that will haunt James for the rest of his life. In fact it leads him to a potentially fatal event which he would certainly have carried out without a chance encounter with Josephine in London. So it’s a surprise to both of them when they meet in California.

The plotting here is particularly intricate, with Archie in Suffolk investigating a crime connected with James’s visit to Milton Hall and Josephine renewing her brief acquaintance with him in the US. Add to that the fact that there’s a war going on, threatening Josephine’s chances of returning to England, and a great deal of tension is brewing on both sides of the Atlantic. Needless to say the solution to the crime does eventually emerge, in ways that the reader has not expected. Enough said!

So the story, as always, is a gripping one, but again as always it’s the historical background that gives this novel an extra edge. Upson’s historical research is impeccable, and the details about the filming are fascinating, all of them based on the true events of Hitchcock’s direction. In one unforgettable chapter, the nervous young leading actress Joan Fontaine cannot produce the emotion he requires of her. In shot after shot she tries to produce the tears he wants, until he becomes exasperated:

‘What would it take to make you cry, Joan?’ he asked, sticking out his lower lip like a disappointed child….Joan answered….’I don’t know. Maybe if you slapped me?’ Marta was horrified, and exchanged a glance with Lydia Schiller. Surely even Hitchcock would not resort to such an extreme measure to get what he wanted – but of course he did.

Another chapter goes into precise detail about the intricacies of the various sets and locations required for the presentation of Manderley, where most of the action takes place, involving photos and models of various sizes in addition to the built sets of the rooms themselves. And I was delighted when, towards the end, characters based on my parents suddenly appeared in minor but important roles. They’ve popped up a number of times in previous novels which always pleases me greatly.

So Josephine soldiers on, and long may she continue. I know that Elizabeth MacKintosh, the real-life woman who used the pseudonym Josephine Tey, died in 1952, so hopefully, she’ll cram in some more adventures and continue to delight us for some time to come.

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

Nicola Upson, Shot with Crimson (Faber & Faber, 2023). 978-0571373673, 332pp., hardback.

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