Sunday, September 25, 2011

Nicola Upson: An Expert in Murder

I actually bought and read this after a tip here on the blog the other day, after I'd written about Josephine Tey (thanks oh swine of madness!). I got so curious, the library didn't have it and I realised they probably wouldn't get it either, so I thought what the hell. Treat myself even though it's an unknown quantity so to speak. Excellent service as per usual at The English Bookshop (link to the right), I ordered online and chose pick-up as delivery option. When I popped in for it your man in the shop said that he'd heard lots of great things about it and that the second one was supposed to be even better, so I was very favourably disposed towards the novel before ever cracking the spine. Although, luckily, not MADLY excited, thanks to the moderate wording of my internet tipper-offer there (a person I've internet-known for years and whose opinion I can trust, I feel) - " I quite enjoyed it, worth looking up for a bit of light fluff" she wrote, and I didn't really expect more then. Good for that, because if I had been I'd've been disappointed.

Mixing fact (she's done a lot of research into Elizabeth MacKintosh aka Josephine Tey/Gordon Daviot) with imagination Upson writes a story about how history, events during the war, catches up with the survivors and their children years later. It's set in London in the 1930s as Josephine Tey comes down for the final week of her play Richard of Bordeaux being performed. On the train she meets and chats with a young fan, who is found brutally murdered later. Everything points to the theatre and the play being involved somehow, especially after there's another murder on the premises.

Idea: grand. In fact, brilliant and creative. Full marks!  End result: so-so. I have to say that I can't even completely agree with my friend's opinion of it being fluff, because I found it quite heavy going. Not that it's difficult or obtuse, it's just a bit ... dense. Sluggish and dull in parts. It suffers greatly from ascribing modern ideas on people of the past in my opinion. I find it hard to credit that even a very liberal woman in the 1930s would sit down with a police officer and immediately launch into a description of her sex life. When I compare the language used to the language used in books from that time there's too much of a discrepancy; it feels unrealistic in the extreme when people refer to "their relationships" for example, in manner of Dr Phil or what have you. I start questioning loads of things: did they really refer to boyfriends and girlfriends in a romantic sense as a matter of course? It does not feel right.

Not only men, but women are relatively promiscuous and no-one really bats an eyelid.  Several characters are gay, and this also is a little bit too okay with everyone. In one or two places she refers to other people being in the know and thinking it's disgusting and immoral, but on the whole everyone is just so fine with it. And I don't think they were, it feels like white-washing. Being gay, for so many many decades, must have been terribly claustrophobic most of the time - the constant hiding, constant vigilance, constant lying, constant wondering: who knows, who suspects, who might tell, who can I trust. Even in a liberal setting there must have been a strong don't ask don't tell mentality. Can you relax into your love for another person in such an atmosphere? Okay, I'm guessing here, but I'm basing it on what I've read that's actually been written at the time in question. Novels like Ngaio Marsh's always tip-toe around the issue, alluding, insinuating. I find that alone very revealing. So Upson's novel just never feels realistic enough. I'm not being transported to the era in question, and then I sort of wonder what the point is of setting it in the past. If you see what I mean (not sure I do myself). Um, like, if you're too unwilling to face the dirty depressing truth about many of the values of the age and make your fictional characters subscribe to them, then maybe you shouldn't be writing about the past. So, as in for example the Maisie Dobbs novels, the characters become flat and featureless, with their overly modern sentiments and explanations for their actions. Hm.

Josephine herself, oddly enough, is the only character who can become more than that, since she really existed. Some descriptions of things she says, thinks or does are clearly based on Upson's research, and they stand out. I can see how they've been worked into the novel, which makes it too obvious, and the contrast between the too-nice and quite bland fictional character becomes jarring.

I also have reservations against the whole plot and style of the detective story (God, the bitching never ends today, does it?). It starts of seemingly a whodunnit and then becomes some sort of serial killer psychological thriller. A bit messy, a bit incomplete.

I dunno, there's just no meat in it, no flesh and blood and bones. No life. Not compared to Tey herself. Upson completely redeems herself by writing so nicely about Tey though, so  NEVERTHELESS - here comes the disclaimer - I still like the book. How could I dislike an author who loves Josephine Tey so much? And she's inspired me so that I intend to buy all Tey's novels, they're certainly worth it and I want to own them. I do I do. And I do want to read Upson's sequels. I just don't know if I want to spend money on them. Hm hm hm.  Dilemma. It is supposed to be an improvement though! I shall wait and see if my mad swine can advise me. :)

Anywhoo. Wonder if the library would want this if I'd donate it? Possibly my friend J would like to read it? Should be up her alley of interest. Let me know, peeps.

No comments: