An Expert in Murder

An Expert in Murder is a quite a good book, but in many ways, it's a victim to its own complications. There's a great deal going on with it, so let me give a brief summary, get into some of its stumbling blocks, and then close with why you really should read it anyway.

Josephine Tey, a Scottish writer and playwright, is traveling by train to London in the 1930s for the final week that her play, Richard of Bordeaux, will be playing in the West End. While on the train, she meets Elspeth Simmons, a young girl who recognizes Tey from a theater review and is quite a fan of her work. Elspeth is staying with her aunt and uncle in London, but she and her beau (who happens to work backstage on Richard of Bordeaux) will be seeing the play later that week. Tey is charmed by the girl, even inviting her to meet the lead actress of the play, who is meeting Tey at the station. Elspeth does so, and in her excitement, forgets her luggage on the train and runs back to retrieve it. Tey and her actress friend leave, but when Elspeth returns to the train car, she is brutally murdered in a way that the police can only believe is premeditated. She will not be the only casualty in this complicated story of the theater and England after the first World War -- for even if the war is over, its effects are still very present in the lives of those who lived through it.

This is Nicola Upson's first mystery novel and don't let yourself be convinced otherwise as you start to read it. I say this because I knew it was the first, and yet kept second-guessing myself. There are two reasons for this. Number one: Upson gave herself the daunting task of fictionalizing history. Her main character, Josephine Tey, is based on Elizabeth Macintosh, a Scottish mystery novelist. Josephine Tey was one of two pseudonyms that Macintosh used; the other is Gordon Daviot. Upson nods to both of these, as Upson's character of Tey writes under the name Daviot. This novel focuses on events surrounding the original West End staging of Macintosh/Tey/Daviot's play Richard of Bordeaux. Now, the plot of this novel is entirely fictional, but many of the characters are modeled on real people. This is a lot of overlay to deal with, but not too much... which brings me to the second reason that I felt like I was missing something throughout the beginning chapters. There was information being glazed over in a way that suggested that these were plotpoints of an earlier novel and all you needed to know was the outcome (aka a court case ruled in favor of Tey and as a result, some other author committed suicide). These incidents that have taken place prior to the events that are taking place in this novel are actually important here in this story, but you aren't necessarily given that impression. When Tey refers to her guilt that author's suicide, the reader feels confused because we are not given much to go on, and the natural impulse is to assume there was backstory here in the form of another novel that we clearly skipped/missed. I'm not sure what could have been done to make this better, but it wasn't until halfway through the book that I realized this backstory was still very much in play. It made things confusing and you never want your reader to spend a lot of time thinking, "did I miss something?"

That said, I quite enjoyed An Expert in Murder. It has its first novel flaws, but perhaps Upson is only really guilty of being ambitious. Upson paints an incredibly vivid picture of theater in the 1930s -- which I assume might be the subject of her nonfiction works, and certainly might be influenced by her own work in theater. It's not simply the on-stage action (because really, this isn't focused on much at all, except in discussions off-stage), but the theater-owner and the backstage crew are interesting, too. One accepts that strong personalities populate the theater, and so they do not seem at all out of place with their quips. Upson doesn't shy away from depicting homosexual relationships even at this time, though mostly she acknowledges that while they might be more common in the theater world, they were still bound by certain societal rules away from the footlights. Her characters off the stage have a bit more depth. Tey was interesting as a slightly older female lead character, but Archie Penrose, the detective, was really great. Their interaction is great and restrained -- very English, but wonderfully multi-faceted. Their link is a bit contrived, but Upson has a real gift for depicting poignant facts that have to do with this time period and if the complications are somewhat easy to foresee, you'll at least appreciate what still feels like genuine emotion without being overly dramatic. The complications of having survived friends and loved ones who were lost in a war, the attempts to move on with one's life, the inability to escape atrocities committed on and off the battlefield... Upson really shines here. I wasn't was thrilled with the ending of the murder mystery (don't worry, no spoilers here), but it came with what felt like a caricature of an evil villain. But even that wasn't quite enough for me to set aside the enjoyment that I'd gotten out of the rest of the novel's prose.

So I certainly believe that Upson will be a mystery writer to watch if she can keep pace with her own standards. I feel that, given the amazing depth of this work, they must be rather high. With all the plotpoints and characters, things felt slightly contrived, but despite these few issues, I still think the book was quite worthwhile and I look forward to the next Josephine Tey mystery, where hopefully Upson will have ironed out a few kinks. Oh, and I'll admit that this is another book where I was lured in by the cover -- I think it's just lovely.

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