Nicola Upson's Josephine Tey mysteries are a class above the usual crime fiction. They shimmer with a love for their prewar setting and the artistic circles Tey, a real-life detective novelist, frequented. Her choice of sleuth was a masterstroke of literary theft: Tey was a shadowy, stubbornly private writer. Like Georgette Heyer, she shunned the celebrity trappings enjoyed by their contemporary, Agatha Christie. As a result she was ripe for imaginative speculation, of which Upson has plenty.
The fourth in the series, Fear in the Sunlight, finds Tey at odds with two more real-life merchants of murder: Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma. Hitchcock invites Tey to a weekend party in the Welsh coastal village of Portmeirion in the summer of 1936, to negotiate the rights to her novel A Shilling for Candles. Also present are a cast of matinee idols, starlets, bitter hotel staff and ambitious studio crew. Each has a forced perspective to rival the architectural oddities peppering the hamlet. When one of the guests is found slashed to death there are more suspects circling than seagulls.
The Thirties calm, with the hangover of the Great War still lingering and the storm clouds gathering once again, makes for a portentous period for a murder story. "Normal is one of the casualties of our generation," declares Josephine. And what better setting than Sir Clough Williams-Ellis's wondrous folly: a village of varyingly scaled cottages, bell towers and villas built in the style of Portofino. While its Mediterranean hues, winding alleys and carefully curated vistas were made famous as the backdrop to the psychedelic series The Prisoner, Upson draws out a more sedate atmosphere of prewar sanctuary, a bolt hole for creative types to kick back with a gin and tonic.
Upson conjures up Hitchcock's dark genius beautifully. Consider his musings as he sits on his balcony: "The tide goes out so quickly once it starts. Imagine the water receding to reveal a body lying on the beach, a woman in a swimming costume, her white bathing cap picked out in the sun. There's a belt next to her, curling snakelike in the sand as the last of the water drains away – and we know immediately that it's been used to strangle her." It's vintage, bombastic, visually arresting Hitch.
Upson has researched her heroine, anti-hero, cameo parts, and stage with aplomb to create a novel that charms until the dagger strikes and then, as Hitchcock once explained, it provides the public with beneficial shocks.