An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson

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An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: The first in a new crime series featuring author Josephine Tey offers the atmosphere of London theatre in the nineteen thirties with a plot that will keep you guessing right up to the end. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571237715

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In March 1934 author and playwright Josephine Tey travelled from her home in Scotland to London for the final week of her successful play Richard of Bordeaux. On the train she met Elspeth Simmons, who, coincidentally, was travelling to meet her boyfriend and to see the play yet again. When they arrive at King's Cross to Elspeth's delight they're met by one of the stars of the show but their arrival coincides with a murder on the train.

The man investigating the death is Detective Inspector Archie Penrose and he's convinced that the murder is connected to Richard of Bordeaux and also that Josephine Tey's life is in danger. When there's a second murder in the West End he knows that there's a ruthless and sadistic killer in the theatre set.

Historical crime novels are all too often heavy on detail and atmosphere but light on plot, but that accusation could never be levelled at An Expert in Murder. The plot has more twists than a corkscrew and concentration is needed if you're not going to lose track of what's happening. What's particularly impressive is that this is a work of fiction but inspired by real people and events thus leaving Nicola Upson little room for manoeuvre. I had various people in mind as the murderer but never even considered the real culprit – although it was obvious when I looked back. Reassuring too was the fact that Nicola Upson resisted the temptation to turn Tey into a sleuth but allowed her simply to be caught up in the events as they unfolded.

Little is known about the 'real' Josephine Tey – which is actually one of the pen names of Elizabeth Mackintosh – but fans of her crime fiction will find the fictional Miss Tey convincing. Even better, those who found the fictional Alan Grant annoying in Tey's detective novels are more likely to warm to Archie Penrose. The theatre crowd – the supporting cast if you like – are utterly convincing, from Lydia, the leading lady worried that her days in such parts are drawing to a close to the staff who keep the theatre running. There's a matter-of-fact look at homosexuality in the theatre world and the stresses that this can put on people at a time when it was illegal.

The physical setting and historical detail are captured to perfection. The country was recovering from the First World War (which has its echoes in the story) but uneasily aware that another is likely. Tey's play with its overtones of pacifism struck a strong chord with the public and Upson has recreated this splendidly. An Expert in Murder (which is a quotation from Richard of Bordeaux) is billed as the first in a series of books featuring Josephine Tey and I'll be interested to see if Nicola Upson can maintain this fine start.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

For a factual look at an earlier period in theatre history we can recommend Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World by Jeffrey Richards. If you'd like to read something by the real Josephine Tey you might like to try The Daughter of Time.

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