Well-written, rigorously-plotted, character-driven novel with a perfect period feel that I loved most for its empathy and compassion.
I’m a fan of Josephine Tay. I think “Brat Farrar” is exceptional. So, when I saw that someone had written a series of mysteries with Josephine Tay as the central character, I was intrigued and had to try one.
I think combining fictional characters and real characters in an historical setting is very challenging. It’s in danger of becoming either a dumping ground for research or an appropriation of the real people involved or the interpolation of inappropriately modern perspectives. When one is writing about a writer, there’s also the challenge of getting the tone of the writing right.
Nicola Upson meets all of these challenges with great skill and manages to produce a compelling novel with strong characters.
“An Expert In Murder” is set in London in the 1930s and revolves around deaths associated with a production of Josephine Tays most successful play.
The first thing that struck me about the book was that that tone of the writing was a good fit for the period, without becoming a pastiche. The period was presented in a way that felt authentic and unromanticised. I was given an insight into the emotional state of a generation haunted by The Great War and already standing in the shadow of the next one. It spoke to the unbridgeable divide between those who’d experienced the trenches and the tunnels those who hadn’t. It conveyed the sense of loss on such a scale that no-one was left untouched.
Theatrical life was drawn with energy and realism and what seems to be a deep knowledge of what the London stage was like in the thirties when John Guilgood was the lead in Tey’s play (he doesn’t appear by name in the book).
The plot is complicated and surprising and has evil at its heart. There is a suspect-rich envionment with many people keeping secrets. The characters are strong and their relationships and moods shift in realistic ways.
By the end of the novel, the strongest impression I was left with was not a clever mystery puzzle but of a deeply compassionate story about the damage done to men by the war, the vulnerability of women and how the theatre could help them achieve independence and the small ways in which we all fail ourselves and each other.
I enjoyed this novel and I’ll definitely be reading more in the series.
If you think you’d enjoy it too, I strongly recommend that audiobook version. Sandra Duncan’s narration is outstanding.