Josephine Tey & Nicola Upson: a #SecondThoughts book review

A little while ago I kicked off a series of book reviews, where my intention is try and avoid star ratings and instead look at the good, the bad, and the ugly features of the book (or series) under scrutiny. Here then another in that series, and another look at detective fiction.

With the title of this post, there is a strong temptation to write ‘vs’ instead of ‘&’, but I’m trying to get away from that sort of book review. If you are a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that, of late, I’m probably getting through more books by listening to them than by ‘reading’ them. Audible and my local library’s current app of choice for borrowing audiobooks have been lifesavers for the times when I have chores that leave my mind free and otherwise boringly unoccupied. In that manner, I’ve been able to blast through several different series of books, as well as the odd standalone. So today’s post is more about looking at two bodies of work, one of which has been read traditionally – with actual books, not on the kindle – and one that I’ve listened to.

Elizabeth MacKintosh came to writing in her late twenties or so – that is certainly when her first publications came about – after a (short) career as a physical training instructor came to an end when she returned home to care for an invalid and dying mother. Later she cared for her father. Upson intimates that the writing was a means of escape, but more on that later. MacKintosh wrote poetry and plays under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot: her most successful play was the historical Richard of Bordeaux, which, incidentally, is often cited as a major lynch-pin in the career of Sir John Gielgud. Her mysteries, of which there are eight, mainly feature Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard: of these there are five, and a further one where he has a bit part. This body of work features a range of realistic people, although generally sketched rather than laid bare in n overly detailed manner, and have clever crimes with clever twists – Grant is known for his ‘flair’ and usually has a sense that all is not right with the neat, pat solution, even if he stumbles on the truth by good fortune rather than solid police work. That said, he wouldn’t have the good luck if he didn’t do the solid police work in the first place. The nice thing about the Grant stories is that whilst there is some character development and a growing shared history, you can pretty much pick up the books in any order that you like and treat them as a standalone – no spoilers here. In particular, it is worth flagging the Daughter of Time, in which Grant, in hospital with a broken leg, is bouncing off the walls, if only mentally. his friends come to his aid he brings his intellect and detective skills to bear on one of the coldest of cold cases: the death of the Princes in the Tower. Daughter of Time was declared to be the Greatest Mystery of All Time (a mystery GOAT – therein lies a story prompt…) by the Crime Writers Association. It is not showy, there are no explosions, and there are no descendants of rival factions duking it out to protect ‘the truth’. But it is subtle, clever, and a good use of your time. Of the rest, probably the most well known today is the Franchise Affair, but in their day, most have received plaudits and awards around the world. If the new impressions that I found in the library are anything to go by, Tey seems to be having a resurgence. which is all to the good, in my opinion. It is worth mentioning ‘A shilling for candles’ (1936) and ‘To Love and be wise’ (1950) if only because they have a bearing on what comes next.

Nicola Upson is on her ninth Josephine Tey mystery, which is to say that she has created a fictionalised version of MacKintosh, called Josephine Tey, and placed her in a world with fictionalised versions of real people (such as Gielgud), fictionalised versions of fictitious people, and wholesale creations. What do I mean by fictionalised versions of real people? Well, for example there is Inspector Archie Penrose of Scotland Yard, who is categorically the inspiration for Grant, in Upson’s books at least. MacKintosh’s real fiance was called in WWI, and Upson presents Penrose as a brother-in-arms of a fiance who is also dead in her books. In ‘A Shilling for Candles’, Grant’s friend Marta Hallard is introduced, and there is a character called Lydia. Upson too has characters called Marta and Lydia, with Lydia taking the role of Anne of Bohemia, which in our world was played by Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies. (I couldn’t tell you how closely Lydia resembles her). In Upson’s Tey-verse, Lydia is closer in some respects to the original Marta – they are at least both actresses, whereas the Tey-verse Marta is a writer and artist.

I apologise for being cryptic: I’m endeavouring to unfold a line of argument without giving rise to spoilers. Suffice it to say that I believe that Upson has done a great deal of research about the period in general as well as the life and work of Elizabeth Mackintosh. I find myself struggling with this: the books are engaging, and I want to find out where the characters are going with their lives, and there are some clever plots with good twists, but…but…but…and again, but. I have a strong sense that we are somehow prying on someone (MacKintosh) who was an intensely private individual.

Compared with the Grant books, events in Upson’s Tey-verse happen at breakneck speed, so whereas Tey’s Inspector Grant first appears in 1929 (The Man in the Queue), and last has an outing in 1952 (the posthumously published The Singing Sands), the fictional Tey is much like any other modern sleuth and deals with a body or three every few months across the 1930s. A Shilling for Candles, the second Grant novel, actually forms something of a backdrop to Upson’s fourth, Fear in the Sunlight, where the fictional Tey is in negotiations with Alfred Hitchcock who might be interested in adapting ‘Candles’. (In real life, the book came ‘Young and Innocent’ and as with so many such adaptations bears only a passing resemblance to the book).

The tricky bit for me, having recently caught up with myself, as it were, is that in ‘A shilling for candles’ Marta and Lydia are both integral to the plot – MacKintosh’s Marta and Lydia, that is (who may well be based on Marde Vanne and Gwen Ffrancgon-Davies respectively). Upson’s Marta and Lydia are integral to Fear in the sunlight, but I think if I were Upson’s Marta and Lydia, I would be having words with Upson’s Tey – perhaps they are both thicker skinned than I give them credit for. And then of course, it’s all make-believe anyway…

So. If you like detective stories, you should definitely look out for these two authors. Tey’s work is of its time and so there is something of a health warning with respect to social mores and attitudes of the time. For example, in the Man in Queue, Grant has formed a mental picture of the murderer that he names the Dago primarily from some assumptions about the nature of the murder. Were the story to be adapted today, this is the area that would probably require the greatest attention. Still, Tey is writing of the time and the writing has a freshness and immediacy that still comes through today – there are a number of Golden Age detectives who can make the whole problem a little too intellectual at times and miss the great morass of humanity that are at the heart of it all. On the other hand, Upson’s work has a certain Midsomer aspect in terms of the number of people that the fictional Tey comes into contact with who end up dead. Whilst the evocation of the 1930s is excellent, you can’t help but see the 21st century building materials that have been used to create it.

What do you think of the trend of making real life people into fictional detectives? Where do you draw the line when casting back through the years for reading material?

©David Jesson, 2021


Comic Timing

The Bandleader blamed the Comic, for adding extra material.  The Comic blamed the Bandleader for coming in too early, drowning out the punchline.

Less than an hour after the end of the show, the Comic stood in a darkened doorway.  He’d arrived early, and removed the light-bulb.

As the musician fumbled with his keys, a voice tickled his ear:

“Laugh this off.”

Puzzled he turned, only to see a figure turning the corner at the end of the street.  His back began to itch as if it were on fire.

He turned and, in extreme discomfort, ran to the shower.

© David Jesson, 2018


A little bit of Flash Fiction, which I submitted to one of Janet Reid’s competitions a few years ago now, but which has kept on getting bumped from FCBF for one reason or another.

There are a number of rules, but the key ones are:

1. Write a story using 100 words or fewer.

2. Use these words in the story:


To compete for the Steve Forti Deft Use of Prompt Words prize (or if you are Steve Forti) you must also use: Fortran

3. You must use the whole word, but that whole word can be part of a larger word. The letters for the prompt must appear in consecutive order. They cannot be backwards.

Thus: early/pearly is ok, but light/sleight is not. Hours is fine, but grouch is not

(You might have to look twice, but I did manage to get Fortran in there :0) ).

#FlashFiction: The Stories – Journal on a Train

“How did I meet Emma? It’s a good story actually. Emma do you want to…?”

Taking a moment to go back to that fateful day, Emma started…

As we pulled into the station, I was wondering which train would leave first, for I’d observed on previous journeys that this is where two lines converged, with trains pulling in on opposite sides of the same platform. As the first two stations on the route are the same before the line goes on to split, commuters – you know what they’re like, ever in a rush – make a dash across the platform to get onto the train which leaves a minute or two ahead of the other. I’d not studied the timetables in order to work out which was which, so I was on alert to follow the dashing suits.

Having made the cross platform dash, I pulled out my tatty old paperback I could squeeze in a few more minutes of reading before reaching my stop. But my peace was disturbed when an impeccably be-suited woman caught her high heels in my laces as she tried frantically to exit from the moving train. Fortunately, another passenger (Emma gesticulated at Bill) grabbed the woman’s flailing suit jacket and pulled her to safety. Nevertheless the door swung open with a crash, for she’d had reached the handle with her desperately flailing fingertips.

“Get that door shut!”

Unbelievably, I obeyed instinctively, only later recognising the military tone of the passenger who had his arms wrapped firmly around the crying woman, holding her back. With the door shut, the fight went out of her, and she burst into tears.

“Deal with this! Err… please deal with this.”

Yes, I recognised that this other passenger felt I should be handling the crying woman for no reason other than that I shared her gender. I threw him a look but, seeing he’d positioned himself to block any more ill-considered exit attempts, I accepted my lot, grubbed around in my rucksack for a tissue and waited. Between sobs we heard…

“I left my journal on that train… One minute it was in my hand, but when I got here, it wasn’t… I must’ve put it down on the seat as I went to get out.”

“No need to go leaping out of the train. You can get out at the next station, wait for that train to arrive, get on it again and reclaim your journal!”

I knew was making sense, of course, but I really wished he’d drop that military tone, as it had started the woman off again.

“No, it’s no good… My boyfriend was sitting on the same seat as me and he’ll pick it up.”

Jumping in before military man – as I now thought of him – I suggested “but that’s good surely. He’ll keep it safe for you.”

Much to my horror, the sobbing unexpectedly descended into wailing, and I couldn’t avoid the raised eyebrows and somewhat smug expression appearing on military man’s face. Responding with a shrug and a wry smile, I settled down to waiting till the wailing subsided, which it only did as they pulled in to my station.

It turned out all three were getting off at the same stop – the final one before the line split. Military man opened the door and got out, offering a hand to first the crying lady and then to me. I’ll admit I tried to be annoyed at that, but couldn’t because I could see he was visibly struggling not to laugh. We fell into step alongside one another watching as our charge answered her mobile phone. Hearing raised voices coming from both her and her phone, we’d – as one – tried to step around her and speed past, but she flung herself at us, in flood of tears once more.

Even the gentleman, the military man (Emma made air quotes as she said that) steered their charge to a nearby bench and settled down to hear the sorry saga…

“He’s read it… Well enough of it.”

We waited…

“He’s seen what I wrote about that guy I spent the night with last night… And that bloke from the weekend… And…”

As one, we stood up and left her to her recitation of indiscretions. As they walked away, I know I was shaking my head and trying to keep from laughing but him, good old military man only laughed out loud once we’d got through the exit. I’ll admit I joined in, and we did laugh in a decidedly uncontrollable manner for a while, getting all kinds of looks from the other passengers as they streamed past us. When we’d finally managed to stop, he introduced himself and asked if I fancied a drink. Turned out I did, and I seem to remember suggesting that pub down by the river.

Bill picked up the story, for they’d remained in that pub until closing time as, despite their many exterior differences, it transpired they agreed on the important stuff.

“So, do you think it’ll make a good addition to my speech?”

“What, how some random’s woman’s journal of indiscretions brought you together – I should say so!”

“You can have it for your speech, but only if you agree to wearing a kilt!”

Bill knew he was beaten. Emma had been trying to persuade him on that front for the past week or two. He suspected he’d been well and truly set up.

© Debra Carey, 2021

#FlashFiction Prompt: Journal on a Train

Journals have become ubiquitous – so many of us keep one, whether that be as a device for managing our time better, for downloading our thoughts, for keeping notes for an on-going project, for development of our ideas …

But what happens if you leave it behind? What caused you to forget something so important? What might it mean to a stranger who finds it?

Tell us the story from whichever point of view you choose – the loser or the finder. As ever, in the genre of your choice.

Word count: up to 1,000
Deadline: 8am GMT on Sunday, 12th September 2021

Don’t forgot, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page

A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below.  If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line – you retain the copyright.

One caveat, if you want to go down this route: this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.

#IWSG: Writerly Success

The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. It’s an opportunity to talk about doubts and fears you have conquered. To discuss your struggles and triumphs and to offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling.

September 1 question – How do you define success as a writer? Is it holding your book in your hand? Having a short story published? Making a certain amount of income from your writing?

Interesting question, as I know I’ll celebrate each and every step along the road, however small. Finishing the book was great and gave me a huge sense of achievement. Carrying out the edits has been hard, and I’ll celebrate once more when we get to a point of being ready to pitch and query. Getting an agent, let alone a deal would have me dancing, but I’d be proud to self-publish if that’s the route we end up taking.

All that said, if I’m being wholly honest, success to me is being paid an advance on the next book. I’d be pleased as punch to hold my book in my hand, really happy to receive good feedback/reviews, tickled pink to have a regular readership, and absolutely delighted to make an income from writing – however modest. But success, genuine success, for me is to be a real player on the field of publishing.

I don’t make this statement with any arrogance or expectation as I know the chances of achieving it are tiny, infinitesimal even – but I see no point in setting my goal low… what kind of Life Coach would I be if I did otherwise! 😀

The awesome co-hosts for this month are Rebecca Douglass, T. Powell Coltrin @Journaling Woman, Natalie Aguirre, Karen Lynn, and C. Lee McKenzie – do join me in taking a moment to visit them.

While you’re here, can I tempt you with a #FlashFiction prompt?

Every month, we run a different #FF prompt and this month it’s Journal on a Train. Journals have become ubiquitous – so many of us keep one, whether that be as a device for managing our time better, for downloading our thoughts, for keeping notes for an on-going project, for development of our ideas …

But what happens if you leave it behind? What caused you to forget something so important? What might it mean to a stranger who finds it? Tell us the story from whichever point of view you choose – the loser or the finder, in the genre of your choice.

If you’re inspired to give this a go, check back here on Sunday for full details.

© Debra Carey, 2021