Life as lived?

The Royal College of Nursing.
Site of Josephine Tey's Cowdray Club
I picked up Nicola Upson's Two for sorrow by accident; and when I realised what I'd done I wasn't at all sure that I even wanted to start reading the book. Let me explain....when grabbing a book at speed from the library shelf (yes, as usual I was there at the wrong end of the day and didn't have much time to browse, but hey, that's how most of the books in my life have entered it, and after over 40 years of book browsing / buying not much is going to change now), I thought the novel was by Josephine Tey, having spotted the name on the cover. I'm a big Tey fan, and she wrote only a few books, so to find one with a title that I didn't recognise was exciting.

And then came the fateful day when I went to read the book, and realised that it was actually a crime story featuring Josephine Tey. One of those novels, for which there currently seems to be a bit of a fashion, in which a well known author investigates a mystery - Gyles Brandreth has a series of Oscar Wilde mysteries, while Jane Austen (I'm not joking) has also been dragged into the private detective business. I've never touched any of these books because, to be quite honest, even the thought of them makes me feel quite queasy. As though it isn't bad enough to have your life reinvented, and for you to be portrayed as someone you aren't, do you have to drag murder in as well?

So, I nearly put Two for sorrow aside. However after perusing the first page and becoming increasingly more puzzled - is any of this writing genuine Josephine Tey? - I became hooked; and I'm so glad that I was, even if I still have some reservations.  I don't like the use of Josephine Tey, and ultimately I could only read the novel by thinking of her as a fictional character, who happened to share the name and some of the attributes of one of the best crime-writers of the twentieth century.

But the major thing to know about this novel is that it's good, very good. Set in the mid-'30s, Tey is in London, catching up with old friends, and staying at a ladies club attached to the Royal College of Nursing. Coping with the changes imposed on them by the First World War, the lives of women have changed enormously in 20 years, although the Bohemian, more sexually emancipated world of the 1920s is starting to crumble. Tey is researching a crime novel which is going to be based on a notorious case from the beginning of the century : the Sach-Walters Finchley baby-farmers case. Sach ran a nursing home in which she delivered unwanted children. The mothers paid upfront for maternity care, and for their children to be adopted; some of the babies however were murdered by Walters. They would probably have got away with it if Walters' landlord, who was a policeman, hadn't become suspicious. The two women were sentenced to death, and despite a plea for mercy from the jury, were executed in the last double hanging of women at Holloway Prison.

Tey's crime seems to be in the remote past, but old crimes have long shadows, and the implications of the case will have a direct impact on Tey's cosy ladies club.

There was so much that was excellent about this book. For a start it's phenomenally well written, the different narratives thread together seamlessly, Upson is great at combining her real and fictional cast-lists (even if I did find that a little irritating occasionally), and it is a fantastic murder mystery. No historical crimes aficionado is going to want to miss reading this excellent tale. It was also great to have such a different detective voice. As well as Tey there's a standard (and very lovely) Scotland Yard detective, his lower-class sidekick, who again is delightfully portrayed; and then there's Tey herself, an independent woman with her own career, who also happens to be a lesbian. The characters set against the Bohemian, independent world of mid-'30s London was fascinating.

But Two for sorrow was rather more than just a striking murder-mystery, there was some serious thought to this novel too. Upson questions why we read crime novels, what is there about them that makes us return to them time and again? It's an interesting question, and one that I suspect many crime-lovers have often asked themselves.

For me too there was another side, which I think, ultimately had the biggest impact on me. I'm adopted. I was adopted as a baby, and have no idea, how I came to be adopted. I have no back-history before I was born. Born just before the law in the UK was changed to make abortion legal, I would suspect that if I had been conceived slightly later I probably wouldn't be writing this blog now. Not that I would have blamed my mother for the route she would have taken, I'm thankful she had me, but I wouldn't have blamed her if she'd decided to go to some back-street abortionist. Being a single-mother in South Wales in the mid-'60s wouldn't have been easy. It had never occurred to me though to ask what happened at an earlier period. I'd heard of Mrs. Dyer (she'd terrified me in the Chamber of Horrors at a young age), and baby farming, but for some odd reason it hadn't dawned on me, that the Sachs-Walters babies could have been my fate born 70 years earlier. It's always odd to look back on an historical version of your life, and think how different it could have been, even odder when a "light" crime novel makes you think so profoundly.

Do read Two for sorrow. Upson's an excellent writer. Clever crime, well written, great sense of place and characterisation. Dead good - what more do you want from a crime novel?


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