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

One thought on “Josephine Tey & Nicola Upson: a #SecondThoughts book review”

  1. Most of what I read is contemporary – in terms of when it was written rather than when it’s set – but I do very much enjoy my forays back into older books, so plan to do it more often.

    I’m not at all sure how I feel about making real people fictional characters. I imagine it takes considerable amounts of passion for the character and a fair degree of confidence. But if inspiration strikes… then as a writer, you’re driven to dive in. In short, I neither approve nor disapprove. When it’s done well, I admire the bravery as much as the craft, but I haven’t felt moved to do so myself.

    Liked by 1 person

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