Angel with two Faces, By Nicola Upson

By Jane Jakeman
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:51

This is Nicola Upson's second crime novel featuring Josephine Tey, the "Golden Age" crime writer. Except that Tey never quite fitted that pattern. In her work there was something darker than the comfy puzzles of her contemporaries – hints of child abuse, lesbian undercurrents.

Upson's book is crowded with mysteries. When Tey arrives to stay with her old friend, policeman Archie Penrose, on his ancestral Cornish estate, there are more potential maniacs among the locals than you would find banged up in Belmarsh. Handsome Harry came off his horse into the lake: what does twin sister, Morwenna, know about it? What did Harry and Morwenna know about the death of their parents? Why does their 14-year-old sister hang around coffins? What is the secret between the village wise woman and the undertaker? The vicar has perverted lusts, the gamekeeper is a psychopath.

Enough already! The effect of all these entanglements is suffocating. The most enjoyable parts of the book result from Upson's researches into the background. The date is 1935, and the suffering of the First World War still overshadows Britain. Penrose remembers the anger he felt on returning from the trenches; Tey wonders whether she is using the memory of her lover, killed in the war, as an excuse for avoiding close relationships.

There's a cricket match, and the Minack Theatre, very enjoyably described in its magnificent coastal setting, is just getting into its stride. Tey and her friends are interested in a production of The Jackdaw of Rheims. But the actor playing the Jackdaw has to take a flying leap near the edge of the cliff, and – bang! – there's another mystery.

Upson is writing her own book, which should not be a pastiche of Tey. But I missed Tey's lean plotting and narrative grasp. As for Josephine herself, Upson seems afraid of grasping her historical character by the scruff of the neck. Pile on the puzzles as she may, Upson does not succeed in recreating the strangeness of Tey's writing and personality.

Faber, £12.99, Order for £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Books Direct: 08430 600 030

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