I am often wary about new detective novels. Like the little girl who had a little curl, when they are good they are very very good, and when they are bad they are horrid. Give me Dorothy Sayers or Laurie King or Kate Atkinson and I’ll happily read my way through a weekend; give me a whole host of others and I’ll grumble and mutter about concealed clues, idiot detectives, clichés, and the long-winded villain’s speech at the end (affording the detective time to break free from the handcuffs.) So I’m wary. But when I saw that Juxtabook and Random Jottings and Nonsuch Book had all read and loved Nicola Upson’s An Expert in Murder, I gave in. At the very least, I’d be in good company.
As it turns out, I’m glad I took the risk, such as it was. An Expert in Murder is a well-written, original, solidly-plotted début novel. For those of you who haven’t already had this on your radar for a year, it takes place in the 1930s, in immediately prewar England (though it is the Great War that affects the plot, rather than the looming Second World War.) The beloved mystery author Josephine Tey has written a smash-hit play, Richard of Bordeaux, and has come to London for further negotiations about provincial tours and a possible film, along with talks about her next play. But before any of this can begin, a young woman she met on the train is brutally, humiliatingly murdered.
The investigation of the murder is done, not by Tey herself, but by her friend at Scotland Yard, Archie Penrose. This, for me, made the book far more believable, as the author-as-sleuth wouldn’t have worked well at all. Tey as a sounding board, for Archie and for other characters who found her sympathetic, was quite plausible, however. And as the body count rises among the tight-knit theatre crowd, sympathy is increasingly necessary.
As I said, this was a very enjoyable book, very well-written, seamlessly plotted and well-characterized. I did have a few nits to pick with it, though (you knew I would, didn’t you?) My main problem with the book was a large hurdle: I wasn’t convinced that the main character needed to be Josephine Tey, a real person. Why couldn’t it have been a fictional author with a similar resumé? Surely, since the murder and the cast were invented, so might the author have been. It simply didn’t seem necessary. Upson says in her afterword that Tey herself, despite having written several historical plays, disliked the mixing of fact and fiction. This seems an odd book to write, then.
The other two things that bothered me were much smaller. The characters were extremely open about their sex lives and sexual feelings, even with people they’d only just met. This would seem odd even for someone in the 21st century (TMI!) let alone for, say, a housewife in the 1930s. It rang a false note. And finally, one of the characters was adopted, and the tone of the novel implies that her life was spoiled because of it: “her childhood and family, her sense of who she was and who she could be.” This seemed an odd way to look at adoption, especially in the context of the book. It jarred on me, though maybe this was just my personal experience getting in the way.
These are small quibbles, though, in the balance of this excellent novel. Upson has created three-dimensional characters and has a good deal of insight into what makes people tick. I am certainly looking forward to reading the next in the series, Angel With Two Faces, to see what happens next with Archie Penrose and Josephine Tey.