Many people have written about Nicola Upson’s An Expert in Murder (Harriet Devine, Cornflower I think) but I have only just got around to reading it. It’s a thriller, based loosely on events in Josephine Tey’s early writing career, when she was having a runaway success with Richard of Bordeaux (as Gordon Daviot) as well as writing the thrillers for which she is now better known.
As a period thriller, this is well enough, and at that level I enjoyed it. There are a number of the normal absurdities – the detective is remarkably free to spend time with Josephine, who he briefs fully on progress in the case (though she is directly involved), and whom he takes to one or two critical interviews! But this nonsense is normal enough. The plot creaks a little, and I thought several dramatic elements took an awful lot of believing, even by the standards of the time – notably the finale, the rationale for the murders, and the wartime events at the very root of the trouble. But to be fair, Josephine Tey, when not at her best, could write clunkers like anybody else – such as The Man In the Queue.
But by setting up the novel in this way, Upton - although writing very interestingly on Tey herself, and giving us a fascinating portrait of an authoress dismayed by the excesses of the theatre, and not wholly at ease with either her fame or her emotional life – demands that we compare her with Tey as a writer. Now, as I hint above, she wrote some shockers. But the best is excellent, well written, imaginative and psychologically convincing, human and warm, and with a realism and intensity in the plot which catches you up and whirls you along – as in The Franchise Affair or The Daughter of Time or even Brat Farrar. And by that high standard, this book does, I’m afraid, rather pale.
One by product of reading this is that I am reminded that Tey wrote eight crime novels, of which I only know about four. So, some more reading to be done: let’s hope they are more Franchise Affair than Man In the Queue!