Crime queen stars in own murder mystery

When her original idea hit a brick wall, Nicola Upson managed to pick up the pieces. The result is a lauded murder mystery tale with a twist. Steven Russell hears about her first fictional offering.

Steven Russell

When her original idea hit a brick wall, Nicola Upson managed to pick up the pieces. The result is a lauded murder mystery tale with a twist. Steven Russell hears about her first fictional offering

NICOLA Upson must be pinching herself to check it's not all a dream. Her first novel is being turned into a BBC Radio 4 drama and multi-book deals on both sides of the Atlantic dwell in her pocket. Redoubtable crime writer PD James describes An Expert in Murder as “highly original and elegantly written”, while cultural commentator Mark Lawson applauds a “clever and evocative debut”.

So where does a debutante author go from here? Well, in Nicola's case it's into self-imposed literary purdah in quiet Cornwall, to finish her second book by the end of the month.

Yes, smiles the 37-year-old, it's all been a bit of a fairy-tale thus far. The other side of the coin is that all the kind words mean there's a lot to live up to. “When you say 'Why are you sitting here looking so calm?'” - with that deadline looming - “you're absolutely right, because there is a pressure on to make the next book good.”

An Expert in Murder weaves fact with fiction. Lead character Josephine Tey is real enough (well, almost, since that name is a pseudonym) and she did write the successful play around which the action revolves in the novel. The made-up part sees her becoming embroiled in a murder mystery and striving to solve the crime.

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In the spring of 1934 Tey goes to London for the final week of her hit play Richard of Bordeaux, only for her arrival to coincide with a killing. Det Insp Archie Penrose is sure the murder is connected to the production, and a second death confirms his fears a merciless assassin lurks within the ostentatious theatre set. It seems Josephine's own life could also be in jeopardy . . .

The novel is, admits Nicola, the result of “a 12-, 13-year labour of . . . sometimes love; sometimes frustration!”

It all started in the early 1990s, when The Society of Women Writers & Journalists and Virago Press launched an award scheme to find the subject of a new biography. Nicola hadn't long finished reading Tey's The Franchise Affair and thought it genuinely different from the often formulaic crime fiction of the 1930s and '40s.

“She was very modern and ahead of her time. I was also interested in her as a person, as there seemed to be very little information about her, but what there was was that she had another career as a playwright” - under the pen name Gordon Daviot - “and had written the play, Richard of Bordeaux, that launched Shakespearean classical actor (John) Gielgud as a commercial star.”

Extensive information was in short supply, but Tey was born Elizabeth Mackintosh in 1896 and grew up in Inverness. During the 1914-18 war she went to college in Birmingham and then spent about eight years working in schools as a physical training instructor.

After her mother died in the mid-1920s, Elizabeth went back to Scotland, ostensibly to care for her ageing father.

It allowed her time to write. Mackintosh produced successful plays under the Daviot name and eight crime novels. The first, The Man in the Queue, was originally published as Daviot. Seven others were written as Josephine Tey.

Her output brought considerable acclaim, but Mackintosh remained an enigma and lived life on her own terms. She was shy with strangers, describing herself as a lone wolf, and shunned social functions and interview opportunities.

All of which didn't help very much when championing the case for a biography. Nor did the fact she died prematurely at 55.

There was material about her professional life, however, and Nicola struck lucky when she managed to contact Sir John Gielgud, star of Richard of Bordeaux and Tey's friend over two decades. “We had two very long and lovely telephone conversations about her, about the play, about the theatre of the time. That was a huge privilege in its own right.”

She also interviewed a lady called Margaret Harris, part of the design team that worked on costumes for the play, and other folk involved with Daviot projects.

“They put together really truthful accounts of her as a professional and also of the theatre of the time. But as for her family, her life in Inverness, that was much more difficult. It was like banging my head against a brick wall, I have to say.

“In the end, the gaps became much more intriguing than some of those facts. But it also became impossible to see it as a biography that said 'She was born on the 25th of July, 1896, and died on . . .'”

Nicola's detailed proposal won through to the last six of the competition, but it was difficult to know how to take it on, seeing that personal details were in short supply.

Then partner Mandy said 'For goodness' sake, make it up!' and suggested dropping Tey into a detective story as a fictional character. “So what you get is a completely fictional mystery but tied on to a very strong biographical thread, with a lot of the detail of her life.”

Nicola started writing the novel about five or six years ago: in small chunks to start with, fitted around her day job at Cambridge Arts Theatre and freelance journalism commitments.

What really oiled the wheels was being adopted in 2005 by the Escalator scheme. Run by Arts Council East and the New Writing Partnership, it nurtures writers from our region with money, time and expertise.

“To have someone like the Arts Council reading your work and thinking it's good enough to support was a huge confidence-booster. The grant (£4,500 or so) enabled me to give up some of the journalism I was doing and concentrate on the book. So most of the book was actually written in six to eight months.”

The icing on the cake was the novel's being chosen by BBC Radio 4 for the Woman's Hour drama slot. It starts on April 21 and runs over 10 episodes of 15 minutes. It's been adapted for radio by Robin Brooks - a writer who lives near Halesworth - and produced “quite appropriately” by BBC Scotland.

Nicola travelled north to meet the enthusiastic cast and production team. “They've done the pacing of it absolutely beautifully.”

She's glad to be raising Tey's profile. Nicola had long ago read the classic works - Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers et al - and liked it in small doses, “whereas Josephine Tey was not only very different from everybody else, her eight books were very different from each other.

“She's much more of a crime novelist than a detective novelist. She doesn't conform to this idea that there's a puzzle, there is a closed circle of suspects, there is this detective who will come in and at the end everything will be lovely and reassuring.

“She's got a very modern voice in that her books don't just deal with the killer and the detective; she's very interested in all the people that crime affects - the families of the people who do something wrong, obviously the friends who are left behind when somebody dies - and that's a modern concern.”

Her work had wit and elegance, a strong sense of place, and characters who seemed real.

“Her detective (Inspector Alan Grant) was the first proper policeman. He wasn't amateur; he wasn't someone who was stupid and ploddy; he was a compassionate, intelligent, hardworking policeman, and he could have been the forerunner for people like (PD James's) Adam Dalgliesh and (Rendell's) Wexford. That kind of intelligent policing that we recognise today goes back to him.”

However: “Her plotting could be a bit daft! I don't think that was ever her strong point, and sometimes I think she must have been having a laugh, but her characters' 'journeys' are just a joy.

“If she'd gone on to write as many books as her contemporaries, I think her ranking would be much higher; but it's because she died young that there's nowhere else for readers to go with her and it's down to subsequent generations to discover her; and that's quite difficult without the kind of (TV) adaptations other writers have had.”

Nicola hopes to create a long-running series of mysteries starring Josephine Tey - ideally one published each year. She has a contract for two books in England and three in America.

The second novel was originally going to be set in Cambridge, but the action was transplanted to Cornwall and the land around the Penrose estate, which includes the largest natural freshwater lake in the county and is in the heart-land of Cornish myths and legends.

Nicola and Mandy fell for Cornwall after a holiday there in a National Trust cottage on the estate, between Porthleven and Helston. They liked the place so much they bought a house in the area.

A magical performance of Macbeth at the open-air, granite, Minack Theatre - full moon, bats, basking sharks out in the bay - clinched the shift of setting to Cornwall.

She says of her fictional casts of killers, sleuths and bit-part players: “It's just a joy to be with these people, who become very real to you. Even now, I still think about the characters from the first book and how they're getting on!”

Nicola Upson has a signing session at the Bury St Edmunds branch of Waterstone's on Saturday, May 10, from 10am-noon. An Expert in Murder is published by Faber and Faber at £12.99. ISBN 978-0571237708

IT was Sod's Law . . . Not long after Nicola Upson dropped thoughts of a Josephine Tey biography, so more personal details came out of the woodwork.

They won't go to waste. Nicola has it in mind to write, at some stage in the future, a factual companion to her fictional crime novels that feature Tey as the main character.

She's keeping her nuggets up her sleeve, but does say that Elizabeth Mackintosh, Tey's creator, had a lover who died at the Battle of the Somme, and that this loss probably affected the rest of her life.

It all adds to the fascination of a playwright and crime author who refused to be pigeonholed.

Nicola doesn't buy the way some pen-portraits have Tey down as a sad personality. “Gielgud paints a picture not of someone who took refuge in her writing while caring for father but as someone who'd come down to London, book into her club, get her furs out of stores, was financially independent through writing, had a nice time and was sought-after company. She could be very witty and entertaining.

“And all this invalid father business . . .” she tuts. “Yes, she did go home to take care of her father, but he was still catching prize-winning salmon well into old age, so the invalid stuff is exaggerated!”

Josephine Tey snippets

The surname was taken from Elizabeth Mackintosh's Suffolk great-great-(or great-great-great) grandmother.

Her eight crime mysteries were The Man in the Queue (published 1929), A Shilling for Candles (1936), Miss Pym Disposes (1946), The Franchise Affair (1948), Brat Farrar (1949), To Love and Be Wise (1950), The Daughter of Time (1951), The Singing Sands (1952).

Nicola Upson: the essentials

Born in Bury St Edmunds

Parents still live in the town

Went to King Edward VI School

Friday night visits to Bury's Theatre Royal with school friends - “paying I think a pound, student standby, I realise started a passion for the theatre”

Started reading French and German at Downing College, Cambridge, in 1988, but missed novels and after a term switched to English

After graduation in 1991, stayed in Cambridge and wrote freelance articles, mainly about the arts

Became marketing assistant at Cambridge Arts Theatre in 1996, staying about a decade and becoming head of marketing

Commissioned to produce a book - Mythologies: The Sculpture of Helaine Blumenfeld - published in 1998

A few years ago she and partner Mandy Morton wrote a book about Cambridge Arts Theatre called In Good Company: A Snapshot of Theatre & the Arts

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