Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Tey Takes the Case: An Expert in Murder

Reviewed by Jeanne

As a rule, I don’t like novels that use real people as characters. I find it distracting. I keep trying to second guess the author, wondering if this or that bit of dialog is true to the person. I think my antipathy dates from a thriller I read back some years ago which had the Duke of Windsor as a shrewd, brave man feigning sympathy for the Nazis in order to gain their trust. Unfortunately for the author, some papers had been released not long before which indicated that the Duke wasn’t exactly the most trustworthy of subjects.

I overcame my reluctance to try An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson (F UPS Main) which features one of my favorite authors as a character: Josephine Tey aka Elizabeth MacKintosh. Tey is, I think, one of the most underrated of the Golden Age mystery authors. Her best known book is Daughter of Time, in which she undertakes to prove that Richard III was really a good king, not the monster the Tudor historians proclaimed him to be. My personal favorite Tey novel is Brat Farrar, about a young man who is pretending to be the lost son of a family as he unravels the truth about the real son’s disappearance.

Tey was an extremely private person, so not a great deal has been written about her life.Her real name was Elizabeth MacKintosh; she wrote mystery novels under the name Josephine Tey but her plays were under the name Gordon Daviot. One play, Richard of Bordeaux, was very successful and ran for over a year. This is the setting for An Expert in Murder. As the play prepares to close, Tey is on her way to London by train for the final performances. A shocking murder on the train involves her in a real life investigation which may or may not be tied to Josephine herself.

This book was a pleasure to read on many levels. Upson somehow managed to write with the feel of the old classic mysteries I loved—Tey, Ngaio Marsh, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Agatha Christie—yet the writing is fresh, not staid. There’s a sort of modern feel to it, yet the setting and characters seem very true to their times. Most of the action revolves around the people involved with the play: producer, actors, set designers, etc. Upson uses real people as models for other characters but makes it clear that she’s not being biographical: some characters meet untimely ends, for example. It gave the whole feel of a play within a play for me. At the end, I half expected all the characters to come out and take a bow.

I especially liked the way that Tey’s involvement was handled. She doesn’t bully her way in, doesn’t try to take charge or claim expertise by virtue of writing mysteries. Detective Inspector Archie Penrose is a friend of Tey’s and is a competent policeman, rather like Alan Grant. The supporting characters are well done and the plot reminds me a bit of some of Christie’s works: suffice it to say that the past can have a profound effect and some acts are never forgotten.

If you like Golden Age mysteries, I think you’ll love An Expert in Murder. Further books in the series are planned. I hope they’re as good as this one, but Upson has set the bar pretty high.

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