Nicola Upson on the Genius of Josephine Tey

Posted on 26th June 2020 by Mark Skinner

Sorry for the Dead, the Waterstones Thriller of the Month for July, is the eighth novel by Nicola Upson to feature real-life Golden Age crime writer Josephine Tey as its star sleuth. In this exclusive piece, Nicola explains why she was drawn to fictionalise such an iconic author and sketches the path of Tey's life and career. 

‘To write fiction about historic fact is very nearly impermissible’ wrote Gordon Daviot in her 1952 novel, The Privateer - so I can only imagine what Daviot, whose real name was Elizabeth MacKintosh but who is best-known today as the crime writer Josephine Tey, would have thought to a series of books which re-imagine her as a fictional character in the genre that we still love her for. Fiction, though, is a wonderful medium in which to explore a woman who was fascinated by identity and who played so successfully with her own; who lived a life of fascinating contrasts, split between Inverness, where she was born and lived most of her life, and the West End of London, where she numbered amongst her friends some of the biggest stage and screen stars of the day. And as Tey herself proved in her most famous novel, The Daughter of Time, fiction is also a powerful way of reinterpreting the past.

In her own lifetime, Tey was equally famous as the playwright Gordon Daviot. Richard of Bordeaux, which she wrote for John Gielgud after seeing his Richard II at the Old Vic, was the toast of the West End for over a year. It ran for 463 performances at the New Theatre - now the Noel Coward Theatre - in St Martin’s Lane, and acquired the popularity of a blockbuster movie: people went 30 or 40 times to see it, and PD James once told me how disappointed she was not to be able to afford the train ticket to London to see the play that everyone was talking about. That unique moment of theatrical history, which gave Tey some of her most enduring friendships, was also the perfect starting point for my series: the title of An Expert in Murder is taken from Richard of Bordeaux, and the play’s 1930s backdrop - mixing the glamour of the stage with the aftermath of the Great War - proved an irresistible setting for a fictional murder. Every book since has started with something real about Tey’s life or work, drawing on interviews with her friends and colleagues, including Gielgud, and reflecting the woman who emerges so strongly from her books and from the private letters that I’ve collected over 25 years.

Despite the success of Richard of Bordeaux, the crime novels written as Josephine Tey have ultimately proved more popular, a fact acknowledged by the author with a certain amount of reluctance: ‘I have the oddest feeling of disloyalty to Daviot,’ she wrote to a friend in 1950. ‘Like turning down a faithful lover.’ The name first appeared in 1936 with the publication of A Shilling for Candles (filmed by Hitchcock a year later as Young and Innocent) but it came into its own after the second world war; by her death in 1952, Tey had expanded and enriched the nature of crime fiction, not through ingenious puzzles and reassuring endings, and sadly not through a vast output of work, but by the sheer originality and audacity of her ideas; by creating - in Inspector Alan Grant - a credible detective whose compassion, intelligence, fallibility and professionalism paved the way for Dalgliesh, Wexford and the next generation; and, most importantly, by concentrating - in a very modern way - on injustice and the aftermath of criminal activity. More than any of her contemporaries, Tey has made it possible for us to write books which treat crime as an entertainment without ever forgetting its painful reality.

At the start of my series, I had no idea what a fascinating journey she would take me on. Tey was a remarkable woman, living in remarkable times, and each novel blends fact and fiction, setting its crimes among the people and events which defined the 1930s, from the films of Alfred Hitchcock and the pioneering early days of the BBC, to momentous changes in women’s lives and the national upheaval of the abdication. She’s opened up a world of wonderful real-life characters for me, from actresses and writers to prison governors and murderers, all of whom made their mark on history for good or for bad: Rowena Cade, creator of the Minack Theatre in Cornwall, who carved a stage from the rocks and lit it with car headlamps, perched precariously on the cliff; Mary Size, Deputy Governor of Holloway, who did so much to improve prison conditions for women; Val Gielgud, John’s older brother and himself a detective novelist, who revolutionised radio drama during his years at the BBC; Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, the visionary architect behind Portmeirion; Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, Edwardian baby killers sensationally hanged together in 1903; Kate Meyrick, notorious club hostess whose death silenced all the dance bands in London; Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who transformed Charleston from a neglected, mud-bound farmhouse to the living work of art it is today; and Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife and lifelong collaborator, a scriptwriter and assistant director in her own right, and on set for every film her husband ever made.

These people teem through the books, but, as rich as they are, it’s Josephine Tey who remains at the heart of everything: warm, funny, complex, fallible and fiercely independent - the chameleon that she once described herself as and a very modern voice, who speaks to our times as strongly as she did to her own. The more I write about her, the more I love her.


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Marni Graff

A measured, inspiring essay. What a grand choice you made early in. Tey remains a fascinating character of her own creation. View more

Marni Graff
9th July 2020
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