After the tremendous success of the stand-alone Stanley and Elsie, Nicola Upson’s tour de force of the artist Stanley Spencer’s complicated marriage and art from the view of his housekeeper, Elsie Munday, the author gives us the the eighth in her series the Sunday Times calls “historical fiction at its very best” featuring Josephine Tey as its main character in Sorry for the Dead.

Upson takes readers in part to Tey’s younger years, alternating with the time period associated with the majority of the previous novels in the 1930s, with a few brief forays a decade later. It is to Upson’s credit that the details for each period ring true and cement each era without confusing the reader. Indeed, the reader becomes immersed in each time frame, in its details and its mores within history.

These periods are needed to tell the story that starts in 1915, when a young Josephine is present as a teacher at Charleston Farmhouse on the Sussex Downs when a young girl dies under suspicious circumstances.

Decades later when Josephine returns to the same house, the memories of those days already brought to the forefront of her mind by recent events, she remembers the two women who ran the farm and taught horticulture to young women during the Great War.

Georgina Hartford-Wroe and Harriet Barker had a difficult time with the neighboring farmers, with whispers about their personal relationship they might have overcome, if not for the tragic death of the girl in their care. That death will turn out to haunt both women for the rest of their lives.

Deftly weaving the storylines between young Josephine’s life and choices then to the path she has chosen as an adult, readers are given privy to her backstory and the events surrounding the death; and later as an adult as she determines she must follow up on the death of that young woman.

In each period, Upson’s language captures the essence of any scene, such as when Josephine as an adult peers into the former site of the girl’s death: “Everything was covered by a silver labyrinth of spiders’ webs, miraculously strong enough to hold the past in place,” presenting a wonderful foreshadowing of the secrets from that long-ago day.

In the earlier time frame, she illustrates the pathos of a WWI train station:

“The platform had filled up quickly, with no one willing to board the train before the last possible moment. She scanned the faces of those who had come to see their loved ones off: wives who talked too much to hide their fear; fathers standing strict and silent; children for whom a uniform hadn’t lost its glamour … As for the men themselves, their faces were set and impassive, and she noticed how few of them dared to look for long at the people they loved.”

This sense of loss, the effects of war, the horrors it brought to those who fought and to those left behind, are indicated in such a subtle but discerning way that it is impossible to forget the aura of the day in the earlier chapters, and in those of 1938, the lead up to the brink of new horrors.

The ending brings with it not so much a sense of justice as that of survival and ultimately, unending love. This is an accomplished novel, as moving as it is complex, with the mystery of a young woman’s death at its heart. Highly recommended.