Elizabeth Mackintosh was a complicated personality. As Josephine Tey, she was the author of brooding crime fiction. As Gordon Daviot, she wrote a successful historical drama, Richard of Bordeaux, a triumph for its star, John Gielgud. But the writer herself was a mystery, living in the Highlands and descending on London only at intervals. Nicola Upson takes the bold step of making this enigma the leading character in a novel.
The surrounding personalities are well done, especially a policeman based on Tey's Inspector Grant, who handles a murder investigation involving a play and its cast. Upson has great fun with 1930s theatreland, and the historical detail makes for good reading, suggesting much research among old programmes and newspapers. But the book falls down on plotting: the detective work depends on absurd coincidences, and an over-complicated back-story points up the author's inexperience.
The key question is whether Tey/Daviot/Mackintosh comes across as plausible. She is presented as intellectually objective, but was passionately one-sided. In The Daughter of Time, an emotive defence of Richard III, she created a catchword that is still current: Tonypandy, meaning a historical canard. The Daughter of Time trumpets that Churchill did not, as often asserted, send troops into that Welsh town in 1910 to break up a miners' strike. Mackintosh ignores the fact that, in 1911, two miners were killed elsewhere by soldiers dispatched by Churchill. Her book appeared in 1951, an election year when the Conservatives mounted a noisy defence of Churchill's actions, and it is a clear indication of her politics. She was far more partisan than Upson suggests.
Mackintosh's crime fiction also depended, not on a cool mind, but on feelings the reader can never quite unravel. The Franchise Affair turns on an obvious twist, but its picture of two women, alone and persecuted, has an intense mood. The undertones of her preoccupations with repression and reality, and the secrecy of her personal life, were probably attributable to lesbian tendencies. Upson deals frankly with homosexuality among the beautiful people of 1930s London, but stops short of suggesting it in Mackintosh herself. Instead, she provides her with a fiancé whose death in the First World War has frozen her feelings. The war story is well told, but this seems a superficial device. Mackintosh herself is the central mystery of the book, still untouched.
Faber & Faber, £12.99. Order for £11.69 (free p&p) on 08700 798 897
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