Two for Sorrow by Nicola Upson is the third in her historical mystery series that features Josephine Tey, the crime ficiton writer, as a protagonist. It was a fascinating read from start to finish and one that I repeatedly made time for ("I'll just have a cup of tea and another chapter") but it is oddly unsuccessful in some points.
Upson's version of the theatreland of the thirties was superb in An Expert in Murder so I was delighted to discover that we were returning there and here lies both the strength and weakness of the book. The behind the scenes look at the Motley establishment, costume and clothes designers to theatre's stars and its rich and influential patrons, is detailed in that pacey, organised-chaos kind of way that one expects from such a place. Here is the heart of theatre's "look" and so a vile and visual murder at its centre is a huge shock for Josephine and her friends. The murder is horrific but the reactions are delicately handled and I particularly liked Ronnie's forthright anger and determination to face things down that seemed to fit so well with her lively tough love.
The plot as it plays out is a brilliant period piece focusing on a crime routed in the post-industrial pre-feminist age of the world of baby-farming. This was something about which I had only sketchy knowledge (mainly based on reading the wonderful Sarah Waters's novel Fingersmith) and though it is a horrible mire of loss and violence and fear it is still something I was glad to know about. Again, as with the world of theatre, Upson is a brilliant guide. The plot is complex but worth the wait and reminded me of Barbara Vine at her best and captured something of the atmosphere of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.
So what are my caveats that I hinted at at the start of this review? Well, Upson has always had her work cut out in utilising the real life Josephine Tey. Although Tey is just a persona, a pseudonym of Elizabeth Mackintosh which Mackintosh used for her crime fiction, as an authorial hand she is as brilliant as she is shadowy. Mackintosh's works as Tey are some of the most literary of the Golden Era and though not the best known of those popular "Queens of Crime" her work is adored by those who stumble on it. This makes using Tey successfully a really hard trick to pull off. I went along with it for the first novels, and I think Upson made a good start. Using both Richard of Bordeaux and The Man in the Queue was successful and alongside Upson's brilliant sense of place and time made for a very successful start. The second book Angel with Two Faces wavered a little maybe but Josephine's relationship with Archie became more intriguing and the use of the open air theatre and Cornwall's rugged coastline was imaginatively done. So what went wrong in book three?
The trouble with real life characters is that they have a real life which you might feel makes a good twist in the plot. Here Josephine's personal life takes on a strange twist which comes out of the blue and makes no emotional or psychological sense. An endnote tells us that the character with whom she becomes involved is based on a real person who knew Elizabeth Mackintosh and that almost everything that character says to Tey in the book is taken from diary entries made by that person. What happens may have been emotionally true for Elizabeth but it does not fit with the Tey as written in the first two books. I thought it didn't work and it made me stop believing in Upson's Tey: a great disappointment as I had grown fond of her over the three books.
So do we give up? No, I don't think so. Upson is a skilled plotter, and a wonderful historical novelist. Tey's emotional life does remain up in the air at the end and maybe Upson can pull it back on track in book four should there be one. I really hope there will be, not least because I am fascinated by Upson's project here. Tey is in many ways only ever a character moving from Makintosh's head to Upson's. She was not the real persona of the writer. Mackintosh's work in theatre and habit of using pseudonyms does make her ripe for this kind of narrative resurrection, and in Tey she has created the perfect player for someone else's stage. But this kind of balancing act between a Tey who was only ever an authorial construction or convenience for Mackintosh, and Upson's Tey portrayed as real and onto whom aspects of Elizabeth Mackintosh's real personal life are sometimes put, is one where it is very easy to drop off the tightrope one side or the other thereby breaking your reader's suspension of disbelief. Upson's Tey lives when Upson's main inspiration is Tey's novels; when Upson takes too much from the real players' biographies then there are too many competing threads and somehow it doesn't quite work.
I must say again that I could not put this book down and I can't stop thinking about the ramifications of this kind of work. So despite my reservations this is thoroughly enjoyable and comes with one of Juxtabook's highest recommendations. For either the baby farming or the crime plot this is a worth while read, we'll just have to cut Upson a bit of slack on the characterisation side with this one.