The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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December 14, 2010

An Expert in Murder and Angel with Two Faces

‘Do you think Loveday had any sense of what was going on?’

'No, she was far too young to understand.’
She wasn’t too young now, though, Archie thought, and there was no way that all the complexities of Harry’s love for Morwenna would have died with his parents. ‘Loveday said you’d argued a lot with Harry recently, and that you even had to lock yourself in your room to keep him away.’
‘She told you that?’
He hesitated. ‘Not exactly.’
‘Ah — she told your friend, then. How useful for you to have a spy in residence.’ Archie started to deny that it was like that, but of course — in effect — it was.
Last month and this have been good months for finding new mysteries to read.  I first heard of Nicola Upson and her books, featuring playwright and mystery writer Josephine Tey, when P.D. James mentioned them in Talking About Detective Fiction, and I've now read (and enjoyed) the first two books in the series. (The third, Two for Sorrow, will be available here next year.)

These mysteries, set in the 1930s, are put together with an intriguing blend of historical fact and imagined fiction, and I think Nicola Upson is more skilled in doing that credibly than some other mystery writers have been. In An Expert in Murder, Josephine travels from Inverness to London for the closing week of her wildly successful play, Richard of Bordeaux. She shares her train carriage with Elspeth Simmons, a young woman who is besotted with the play, and becomes involved investigation when Elspeth and another figure from the theater are murdered. 

If there's any fault for me to find with these books, it's that Josephine is a curiously bland character.  She is the more serious foil to her actress and costume-designer friends {there's a wonderful note about Lettice and Ronnie Motley here} and a sounding board for Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Archie Penrose, a cousin of the Motleys connected to Josephine through the fiance she lost in World War I.

painting by Cornwall artist Violet Mainwaring, seen here
In an interview I read, Nicola Upson identified Archie as a purely fictional character, but she still gives him a name from and a connection to real places in Cornwall.)  In Angel with Two Faces, he invites Josephine to visit his family's estate, a place that he loves but no longer fits into. The book opens with a funeral:   Harry Pinching, who works with the horses on the estate, has drowned in the treacherous Loe Pool, and Archie investigates when questions are raised and another death occurs. The settings for this story (the Minack Theater, among them) are wonderfully atmospheric. The final turn of events was a little sudden (literally), and a little over the top, but it was still unexpected, as a good ending should be.

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