Book reviews: Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson

Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson
Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson

For the last nine years, Nicola Upson has quietly been building an impressive reputation as one of the most exciting, intelligent and assured writers of Golden Age inspired crime writing.

Nine Lessons is her seventh Josephine Tey Mystery, just the latest in an atmospheric series set in England between the wars. These elegant and beautifully written novels blend fact and fiction, contrasting the stark realities of life in the 1930s and 40s with the glamorous world of theatre and film.

For those new to a name which shone brightly in Britain’s Golden Age of crime writing, Josephine Tey was a pseudonym used by the enigmatic Elizabeth Mackintosh, a Scottish author best known for her mystery novels of the 1940s and 50s.

Virtually unknown today, Tey has been given a new lease of life as the lead character in Cambridge graduate Upson’s cleverly plotted novels which see the best-selling crime author and playwright turn detective to solve cerebral mysteries and give voice to the downtrodden silenced by both society and history.

It’s 1937 and DCI Archie Penrose of Scotland Yard has been called to St-John-at-Hampstead churchyard, one of London’s most famous burial grounds and the final resting place of celebrated artists, scientists and actors.

Lying in a centuries-old grave is the church organist, Dr Stephen Laxborough, a man who ‘lived his life like he played his music – precisely, professionally, and with rarely a note out of place.’

Laxborough had been buried alive and left to die, and Archie is convinced that for the killer ‘the suffering was as important as the death itself.’

The only clues are a torn photograph of a manor house and a scrap of parchment paper with a cryptic message but they are enough to lead Archie to Cambridge where his friend Josephine Tey is helping another friend to settle into her new home.

But Cambridge is presently a place gripped by fear and suspicion as a serial rapist stalks the streets. Young women have been attacked all over the town at different times of the night and with no obvious connection between the victims.

While Josephine helps the police to track down the rapist, Archie investigates the murder but is soon facing some of the most horrific and audacious killings of his career and a line of inquiry that takes him back to the years before the Great War and a handful of friends and scholars who are being killed off one by one.

From Cambridge to the bleak and desolate Suffolk coast, Josephine and Archie are on a journey which will ultimately leave their lives changed forever…

Upson reveals that her new multi-layered crime thriller – which comes with a brilliant twist in its tail – was inspired by the real-life Cambridge Rapist who terrorised women in the university town in the 1970s, and her love for the early 20th century ghost stories of Cambridge academic M. R. James.

And Nine Lessons is not for the faint-hearted… Upson’s subtle hand juxtaposes an elegantly descriptive narrative with a thrilling thread of simmering menace, dark, disturbing plot lines and grisly murders that will make your blood run cold.

Josephine and the immensely likeable Archie face very personal dilemmas in this gripping, haunting mystery which needs no reference to earlier Josephine Tey novels but is so clever and compelling that satisfied customers will be eager to seek out and devour all the back titles.

(Faber, hardback, £12.99)