An Expert in Murder: Nicola Upson

This is billed as the first in a series of mysteries starring writer Josephine Tey as the detective, and that puzzles me a little. She was a primary character, but not the primary character, and didn’t really serve as the detective …

It’s the last week of the highly successful run of Tey’s stage play Richard of Bordeaux, and the book begins with her on a train from Scotland to discuss the national tour of the play and, perhaps, a film. A young neighbor in the first class apologetically introduces herself as a huge fan of Josephine’s writing and of the play, who is in fact on her way to see it one more time. Josephine is unexpectedly charmed by the girl, Elspeth Simmons. She is excited about the play, excited about the new boyfriend she will be attending with, excited because he had set up a first class train trip and front row seats – and over the moon about meeting Josephine, especially when she finds out that meeting Josephine at the station will be Lydia Beaumont, the female star of the show. And she meets Lydia, and obtains autographs, and then realizes she’s left baggage on the train and goes back in – where, a little while later, she is found dead. In the narrative this is referred to as the first murder.

The dolls

The choice to take a real person and cast her as the putative main detective was an odd one to me. It always makes me a little queasy when a writer uses real people as characters, unless it’s done very very well (for example, The Dante Club was done very very well; The Hum-bug was just offensive). An Expert in Murder troubled me a bit; it was such a peculiar concept. First of all, there was no Josephine Tey, per se. The writer’s name was Elizabeth Mackintosh; Gordon Daviot was the pen name she used for several books and her plays, and Josephine Tey was the name she used for her books; from what I can see she never went by “Josephine Tey” in her usual life. Perhaps needless to say, the entire plot of the murder was fabricated for this book; there was a situation similar to “that business with Elliot Vintner”, though from the little I’ve found online it didn’t amount to remotely what happened in this book, and there was, of course, no murder whatsoever. The cast of the play was created for this book; the reality of John Gielgud and (I believe) Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies is very interestingly turned into John Terry and Lydia Beaumont. (A producer Gielgud worked with was Hugh “Binkie” Beaumont; I wonder if John Terry is a reference to Ellen Terry.) I kind of thought the homosexuality of the leads was a bit overdone, a bit improbably prevalent and overt – but from what I read of Gielgud apparently not. My point here is that I can’t but think this would have worked at least as well had she simply cast the story into an entirely fictional setting: here is a stage production in London in the 30’s, and the play was written by this woman who is an acclaimed writer, and this is what happens. I don’t see any special reason why the writer in question had to be Josephine Tey, apart from as a selling point.  The real detective is Detective Inspector Archie Penrose, and he was a very good character – I liked him, I liked his Sergeant, I liked his setting.  I could wish the series were simply based around him – though that might wind up being more Roderick Alleyn than Alan Grant.

I liked it. There was a decent mystery there, and engaging characters, and a believable setting in a London theatre. But the story-telling style drove me slightly crazy at times. It had a heaping helping of the dreaded head-hopping. This is something which, unless I’m mistaken, is more acceptable in England than in the US; it never bothered me before I learned it was a Bad Thing, and rarely since, but it bothered me here. The narrative of the book is choppy, with a more sedate sort of head-hopping, with lots of points of view. What irritated me, though, was the stingy doling out of information. It’s necessary in a mystery to withhold information, of course. And another Bad Thing new writers are warned against is the dreaded info-dump, in which clumps of information are scattered like undissolved lumps of flour in a cake. The “As you know, Jim” syndrome. Well, Nicola Upson took that directive very much to heart, because she refuses to divulge plot points until she absolutely has to. “That business last year with Elliot Vintner” is mentioned on page 8, and the reader does not find out what “that business” was for chapters. The same thing happens with a few other minor mysteries: what did Elspeth’s boyfriend do that has him in so much trouble with his boss? What on earth is going on with the two main actors? I figured that one out fairly easily – but it was annoying to have so much information withheld, sometimes for no very good reason. The climax of the story was melodramatic, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing it’s not a very good thing here.   The elements of WWI underlying the whole thing were well done; the elements of the theatre were well done if not as alluring as, say, Ngaio Marsh did; the characters were enjoyable.   The plot was perhaps the least involving part of the whole thing for me.  I probably won’t actively seek out the other books in the series; I’ll pick them up if I come across them, but I’ll be fine if I don’t come across them.

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