There’s a wonderful golden age feel to the opening of Nicola Upson’s latest novel – an old-school mystery involving multiple suspects, hidden messages in the press and very little blood and gore. Actress Elizabeth Banks (no, not that one) is the twin sister of a young girl, Dorothy, who died while at Moira House, a horticultural college in Surrey. Josephine Tey, a teacher at the college for a summer, finds herself forced to relive the time of Dorothy’s death and unravel a very modern mystery which spans not only crime, but social constraints and trials of the human condition.
This is the eighth book in Upson’s series about Tey – the pseudonym of real-life Inverness-born crime writer Elizabeth Mackintosh (1896-1952) – and I have to say that, while I enjoyed the novel and its predecessors, the whole concept still confuses me.
In the books, the protagonist is known as “Josephine”, yet in real life the writer would have been known to friends and family by her real name, Elizabeth. This fact helps to put some distance between the real Elizabeth and Upson’s fictional Tey, yet I sometimes can’t help thinking that she would have been better to fictionalise her entirely.
Perhaps drawing on Mackintosh’s real-life experiences at a Physical Training College in Birmingham and subsequently as a teacher of sport for girls, Upson’s story recounts, in a series of flashbacks, Tey’s time at the horticultural college where Dorothy dies. Upson creates a sense of time and place beautifully, from the theatre where Tey is offered the opportunity to direct her own play, to the farmhouse in East Sussex where the tragic death took place. As well as the mystery itself, the relationship between the two women who run the college, George and Harriet, gives a potential insight into Mackintosh’s own personal struggles. While very little is known about the author’s personal life – bar a suggestion from John Gielgud that she had a tragic wartime romance with a soldier – it has been noted by critics that many of her novels feature independent women who actively avoid marriage.
While containing wonderful twists and turns which single out Upson as a talented author of historical crime, the rich background of Tey’s life adds an extra layer to this particular novel – especially for fans of her previous work, who will relish an insight into a favourite character’s backstory. Jane Bradley
Sorry For The Dead: A Josephine Tey Mystery, by Nicola Upson, Faber and Faber, £12.99