REVIEW: Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson

My first thought on being asked whether I would like a review copy of ‘Nine Lessons‘ – Nicola Upson’s latest historical crime series featuring writer Josephine Tey – was how did I not know there was a crime fiction series featuring Josephine Tey?!?! Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant mysteries are amongst some of my favourite ‘classic’ crime and ‘The Daughter of Time‘ is one of the few books that I regularly re-read. My second thought was, of course, heck yes – send it over!!

I was, I’ll admit, a teeny bit nervous as to what the book might be like. Blending reality and fiction isn’t the easiest so it’s a brave decision to make your protagonist not only a real person but a relatively famous one amongst crime fiction aficionados. Given that Tey was also a notoriously private person, who disclosed very little about her personal life even to those closest to her, I also wondered how much fact Upson would have to rely upon and how this might impact her portrayal of Josephine.

My fears were however, unfounded. Even without knowledge of the first six books in the series, it is clear that Upson has taken the air of mystery that surrounds Tey’s private life and blended it smoothly with the few facts available to create a plausible and complex heroine. The blanks of Tey’s life – friends, lovers etc- are filled in with fiction but it’s plausible fiction and I felt like the woman coming across in ‘Nine Lessons’ really could be the woman who wrote the golden age classics that I’ve so enjoyed. Upson’s Tey comes across as clever, passionate and sensitive with strongly held opinions, many of which seem very forward-thinking for the time. As such she’s a brilliant foil to the slightly more dour Chief Inspector Archie Penrose with whom she shares the investigation. Which is not to say that Archie is a difficult character to follow – he’s just a still waters run deep type and reminded me a little of P D James’ Adam Dalgliesh with his quiet competency and methodical approach.

The mystery itself is complex, with two distinct threads to the plot and a little knot of personal problems thrown in on the side, yet it never gets so tangled that you lose the thread of what’s going on. Archie’s investigation into the ritualistic murder of a church organist soon leads him to Cambridge and a link to a group of scholars who once shared ghost stories around the fire with M R James – links that might now see them being killed one by one. As a fan of James’ ghost stories I really enjoyed this link and felt the atmosphere of Cambridge academia at this period really came across.

Also in Cambridge, Josephine finds herself becoming entangled in an investigation into a serial rapist who has been terrorising single women. This latter element, based upon a series of real life crimes, provides an opportunity for Upson to examine the expectations placed upon women at this period as well as the way that attitudes towards a crime such as rape have altered – or, arguably, haven’t in some respects.

Overall this was a cleverly plotted, compelling mystery novel. I didn’t feel as if I missed too much by not having read the first six books in the series – although I admit that the personal plots held less interest for me probably because I hadn’t read the books in which the various relationships were established and developed. The actual crimes investigated are completely standalone however and very engaging without any prior knowledge of the series. Having read ‘Nine Lessons’ I am keen to go back and discover the earlier books in the series and I’d certainly recommend ‘Nine Lessons’ to anyone who’s a fan of classic crime or of the style found in P D James’ books or Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series.

‘Nine Lessons‘ by Nicola Upson, published by Faber & Faber, is available now as a hardback and ebook from all good book retailers. My thanks go to Sophie Portas at Faber & Faber for providing an advance copy in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

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