Long shadow

Polstead, Suffolk. Site of the Red Barn murder
A few years ago I reviewed Nicola Upson's Two for sorrow, one of her "Josephine Tey" mysteries, a series in which the famous crime novelist becomes a central detective figure in a series of crime novels. I was a little ambivalent about the use of an author who I admire hugely, but I found Two for sorrow a thought provoking read. Shortly after I was given a copy of The death of Lucy Kyte, a later novel in the series, and that has sat on my To-Be-Read-shelf for far too long. When I finally got round to reading it, I kicked myself soundly for not reading it sooner, for from the moment I read the first few pages, I was hooked.

There are some similarities to Two for sorrow - Josephine Tey is again a central character, and is rather more well-developed than she was in the earlier novel. Perhaps it was because I now knew what to expect in terms of the way the Josephine Tey character was treated, but I had none of the qualms or uneasiness with the character this time round as I had had before. Like Two for sorrow, much of the narrative involves a much earlier crime which proves to have unexpected repercussions long into the future. The crime this time is the famous case of Maria Marten (rightfully Martin), also known as the Red Barn murder.

When Josephine Tey unexpectedly inherits a cottage from her godmother, she's rather surprised both to receive the inheritance, and then to discover that the cottage is right next door to the site of the death of Maria Martin. Her godmother's obsession with Maria is probably not that surprising as she gained her reputation as an actress from playing the role. Josephine soon discovers a transcription of a diary, purportedly that of a friend of Maria's; but where is the original? What is the reason for her godmother's tragic death? And where are the mementos of the Red Barn murder?

As Tey gets drawn into the investigation a cast of fictional and factual characters (Tod Slaughter and Mrs. Simpson are just two of them) mesh seamlessly together in a compelling and thought provoking read.

Lucy Kyte is extraordinarily well written, it manages to combine effortlessly 2 strands of crime fiction, one Victorian, one set in the 1930s along with the true story of a notorious Victorian murder and the complex social mores of a Britain between the wars, while musing on the lives of women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. All this, and a chilling ghost story too. It's a superb piece of writing. Very enjoyable, often moving, occasionally creepy. I thoroughly recommend Nicola Upson's The death of Lucy Kyte.

Josephine Tey, probably photographed around the same period as The death of Lucy Kyte is set
There's a fascinating article in Vanity Fair by Francis Wheen about Josephine Tey, that most private of crime novelists, which also adds some background to Nicola Upson's detective series. Well worth a read.


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