Celebrating a life of crime
2nd March 2019
Nicola Upson talks to Eileen Leahy about what got her hooked on writing and why she made a former Tunbridge Wells teacher the principle subject of her crime novels
Nicola Upson's popular crime novels featuring the author and playwright Josephine Tey, who taught in Tunbridge Wells after the First World War, have been widely praised garnering reviews such as 'historical crime fiction at its very best' (Sunday Times) and 'a masterstroke of literary theft' (Independent on Sunday).
Set in the 1930s, each of Nicola’s Tey novels, as she describes them, weaves an original murder mystery around a celebration of Tey's life and work.
Her latest book, Nine Lessons, is set in the winter of 1937, and ‘features a series of baffling murders inspired by M.R. James's famous ghost stories’, explains Nicola.
“The book takes readers on a gripping journey from King's College, Cambridge to the bleak, atmospheric Suffolk coast, where some of James's greatest tales are set.”
This is Nicola’s ninth Tey book to date but although she is a huge fan of the crime genre she says that she hasn’t always written about it.
“The series of crime novels I write came about almost by accident,” she explains. “They were inspired by a love of the brilliant crime novels that Josephine Tey wrote between the 1920s and the 1950s. Tey - who taught in Tunbridge Wells for a while after the First World War - was a remarkable, ground-breaking crime writer, responsible for uniquely subversive books. I loved her voice - intelligent, wry, forthright, romantic at times - and then went on to discover her achievements in the theatre.
“The books began life as a biography to celebrate those two literary identities, and I was lucky enough to talk to many people who knew Josephine well and worked with her, most notably Sir John Gielgud, but there were still many gaps and they began to be as compelling as the facts.”
Therefore each of the novels paints a truthful picture of Tey's life and work but she is placed in a fictional mystery each time. “I owe her a great debt,” continues Nicola. “Had it not been for her, I might never have written fiction.”
Nicola, who was born in Suffolk and read English at Downing College, originally worked in journalism and theatre – which she says formed a backdrop to some of her novels before she got into writing. She had her first book, Mythologies: the Sculpture of Helaine Blumenfeld, published in 1998 and since then has written about myriad subjects.
“I've written a lot about art and theatre, and my next novel, Stanley and Elsie, tells the story of the artist Stanley Spencer's life through the eyes of his maid, Elsie Munday. Like the Tey books, it's a reimagining of a particular time and place, and it gives a voice to the women who are usually the silent presence in Spencer's paintings.”
Yet the more books Nicola publishes she says that inspiration and the writing process don’t necessarily come that easy to her.
“It seems to get harder rather than easier, because there's more to live up to. I'm lucky enough to have very loyal readers who care as much as I do about the characters in my books, so I never want to disappoint them. I'm never short of ideas and inspiration, but it's important to choose something that's going to be as compelling at the end as it is at the beginning.”
Her key goals when the inspiration does come are simple, she wants to “be entertaining and to do justice to the characters I'm writing about, whether they're fictional or based on real people.”
Nicola adds that she wants to open up a world that the reader doesn't know about, or to surprise them with a different view on something that they thought was familiar. “I was lucky enough to have a friend in PD James, and she gave me the most important piece of advice I've ever had: 'Make it the best book you can, dear.' That's really the only goal that counts.”
Nicola’s next Tey mystery, entitled Sorry for the Dead, comes out in the autumn and is set at Charleston. So what is it that appeals to the author about the crime genre?
“The thing I love most about the crime genre is its diversity. There's no story or human emotion - love, hate, jealousy, grief, obsession, shame - that it doesn't allow you to explore, hopefully within the context of an entertaining narrative and a great puzzle.”
And finally what can the audience enjoy about Nicola’s forthcoming talk at Tunbridge Wells library? “I'll be talking about the blend of fact and fiction in my books, and the way in which my crimes are set among the people and events which defined the inter-war years, from the films of Alfred Hitchcock and the pioneering early days of Broadcasting House, to momentous changes in women’s lives and the national upheaval of the abdication and coronation of George VI.
“We'll explore the importance of place and setting, and some of the real crimes that feature in my books - the baby farmers Sach and Walters, the Red Barn Murder, the Cambridge Rapist. And of course I'll be talking more about Josephine Tey, sharing a love of her books and giving insights into her life which are not so widely known. It's lovely to think that there might even be someone in the audience whose mother or grandmother was taught by her!”
Tickets to see Nicola Upson in conversation at Tunbridge Wells library on March 5 cost £4. The event runs from 6.3pm - 8pm and can be booked by visiting kent.gov.uk/libraries or calling 03000 41 31 31