Readers know that Auntie M has long been a fan of Nicola Upson’s series set in the 1930s and featuring Josephine Tey as the protagonist. Starting with An Expert in Murder, through the stunning Fear in the Sunlight, each book is carefully researched and an enjoyable read.
So it was with great delight that after this brief review she is able to bring you an interview with Upson with questions based on her newest offering. THE DEATH OF LUCY KYTE is perhaps the author’s most challenging novel to date, a mystery within a mystery, meticulously researched, and a resounding read. It’s complex plot features the Suffolk countryside as the setting, where Tey has inherited a remote and crumbling cottage from her godmother.
Along with the hard work needed to make it habitable comes just the sort of intrigue to pique the interest of a mystery writer. A centuries-old murder still resonates on the minds of the villagers; yet the young woman named as the beneficiary in Tey’s godmother’s will seems to have disappeared from their memories. How Tey solves the mystery of Lucy Kyte forms the basis of this intelligent and rewarding read. Highly recommended.
And now in her own words, learn the story behind this book and please welcome Nicola Upson:
Auntie M: You obviously spend a great deal of time doing research on your novels and their settings and history: Angel With Two Faces and the Minack Theatre in Cornwall; Fear in the Sunlight and the Hitchcock’s in Portmeirion, Wales. Now with The Death of Lucy Kyte you’ve indicated that Polstead and the story of Maria Marten and William Corder is one you grew up with and wanted to explore in this book. How did you decide on the storyline to bring Josephine Tey to the area and involve her in its history?
Nicola Upson: I felt justified in bringing Josephine to Suffolk, as she had Suffolk ancestry on her mother’s side – her family brewed beer in the county – and it’s clear from her letters that she often visited many of the places that are referred to in the book – Stoke, Lavenham and, of course, Newmarket for the horseracing. ‘Josephine Tey’ was a pseudonym (her real name was Elizabeth MacKintosh) and she claims to have taken that name from her Suffolk great-great-grandmother. But you’re right – the decision to set a book in Suffolk was a personal one, and much more about me than it was about her! It’s my home county, where I grew up and where most of my family still lives, and it’s where my roots are. So – perhaps inevitably – Josephine’s story is a very personal one in this book, a story that touches on her family and her past, and in which she feels very strongly the presence of the people she’s lost, and the book feels very personal to me as well.
The Red Barn Murder – the killing of Maria Marten by her lover, William Corder in May 1827 – is certainly the first crime story I was ever aware of. As a child, I remember summer days out in the Suffolk village of Polstead with my parents, walking past Maria’s house or William’s, fascinated even then by what had happened there and by the real people behind the legend. I lived in Bury St Edmunds, the town where Corder was hanged, and every weekend I passed the Gaol where the execution took place on the way to my grandmother’s house. Bury’s museum, Moyse’s Hall, has a macabre collection of exhibits from the crime – Corder’s scalp and death mask, an account of the trial bound in his skin – and those things were so thrilling and so horrifying to a little girl. And we know from Tey’s work that she was fascinated by true crimes from the past – The Franchise Affair and The Daughter of Time are both based on historical crimes – so I felt she would have loved the facts and the mythologies that circle around the Red Barn Murder, too.
Choosing and getting to know the setting for each book is, for me, one of the greatest joys of writing. Lucy Kyte was different in that Polstead was a place I knew well as a child and have now rediscovered; most of my other novels have been set in locations that I’ve come to know primarily through the act of writing and research, places like Portmeirion or areas of London which were unfamiliar to me before I set books there. So it was special for me to revisit those childhood landscapes, to see Polstead in each new season and to imagine myself back there in a different time – first Josephine’s, and then Maria’s.
AM: We don’t learn who Lucy Kyte is until the storyline is well-established and unravels, yet her death forms the last part of the book. After reading it, I realized this was absolutely the best title for this book. Did that come to you after writing the book, or was it always your premise from the start?
NU: It’s the only one of my books that has had and kept its title from the very beginning. Titles are so hard because it’s not just your decision: you have to find something that feels right to you for the story, but your publisher has an input and it has to be something which tells a reader what to expect and which fits with the genre you’re working in. It wasn’t until Two for Sorrow that I titled one of my own books! My editor suggested An Expert in Murder, and PD James gave me the poem that’s titled Angel With Two Faces, because she felt it was exactly what the book was about. But there was never any question about this one: as soon as the character was named Lucy Kyte, the book had its title and I’ve never thought of it as anything else.
AM: Even as you’re promoting Lucy Kyte I’m certain you’re researching and writing the next Tey book. What’s in store for Josephine that you can share, and will her cottage figure in the future you have planned for her?
NU:The sixth book in the series – which currently has two titles! – is indeed underway, and it sees Josephine back in London in May, 1937, where she is involved in a cycle of radio plays at the BBC to celebrate the coronation of George VI. The repertory company of characters is back for this book, with Archie and Bridget, the Motleys and Lydia, but there will be other books that are more intensely focused on Josephine in the way that Lucy Kyte is.
Josephine’s cottage will be a very important part of her future, particularly as we head towards the war years. It’s funny, but when I started Lucy Kyte I deliberately held back on making a decision as to whether or not she would keep it at the end of the book: I wanted to feel my way into it as she did, and see how we both settled in! But there was no doubt in my mind by the end that she’d fallen in love with it, and I certainly haven’t finished with Suffolk as a novelist. And in all the books, there is an element of wish-fulfilment, of giving Josephine things in life that I genuinely believe she would have enjoyed under different circumstances. She wrote very movingly to friends about wanting one day to make a home for herself – she’d always lived in digs or the family house – but never got the chance to do that as she died so shortly after her father; I think she’d have liked the one I’ve chosen for her. I hope so, anyway.
AM: Besides Tey, whose writing has been an influence on your own?
NU: PD James. I think it’s significantly down to Phyllis and to Ruth Rendell that people like me are able to write detective fiction with the freedom and popularity that we enjoy today. When they began to publish in the early 1960s, crime fiction was at a crossroads: it could be relegated to the realms of slightly outdmoded entertainment, or it could become the living, breathing reflection of society that it is today; they set us out on the right path, and really expanded those boundaries – and they’re still doing it, creating benchmarks for writers to aspire to and books for readers to love, and I’m hugely grateful to them for that. And when you pick up a PD James novel, you get a brilliant fusion of theme, setting and character which makes the book about so much more than the plot; her descriptive passages take your breath away. For me, Death in Holy Orders is the perfect (crime) novel.
Reginald Hill is another huge influence. He has inspired me to be brave with a series, to try to develop characters whom readers will feel a real ownership of, and to play with the format and not be afraid of trying something a bit unexpected between one book and the next. He was a writer who really trusted his readers to go with him, and that takes a lot of courage.
Pat Barker is a remarkable novelist – I loved Toby’s Room; it’s a brilliant book, and her blend of fact and fiction is truly inspirational.
AM: When you read for pleasure, whose books are on your nightstand?
NU: I love Irish fiction, so Sebastian Barry, William Trevor, Jamie O’Neill and Colm Toibin are favourites. Susan Hill amazes me every time with her versatility. I treasure a book that makes me laugh, and I’m particularly keen on Barbara Pym, Stella Gibbons and Angela Thirkell – that wry, female humour with a real sting in its tail. Every summer, I re-read JL Carr’s A Month in the Country, which is probably the novel I wish I’d written, short and very, very beautiful. Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen have always been important to me. Wuthering Heights – which I first read when I was seven because of Kate Bush! – is a book I return to often, and it’s never disappointed me at any age – very few books grow with you in that way. Other than Tey, the Golden Age writers I love are Christianna Brand and Edmund Crispin. And the book I’m saving because I don’t want it to be over is The Days of Anna Madrigal, the most recent volume in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.
AM: We share many of the same affections and mentors. Many thanks for sharing your influences, your insights and especially the background regarding this newest addition to your exceptional series.