Book review: The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson

There’s a delicious double serving of real-life history in the fifth book of Nicola Upson’s exceedingly clever and exceedingly entertaining Josephine Tey Mysteries series.

By Pam Norfolk
Wednesday, 2nd July 2014, 10:00 am
The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson
The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson

For those new to a name which shone brightly in Britain’s Golden Age of crime writing, Josephine Tey was a pseudonym used by the enigmatic Elizabeth Mackintosh, a Scottish author best known for her mystery novels of the 1940s and 50s.

Virtually unknown today, Tey has been given a new lease of life as the lead character in Upson’s cleverly plotted and richly atmospheric novels which see the best-selling crime author turn detective to solve some cerebral mysteries.

In Upson’s subtle hands, Tey becomes a mild-mannered, mid-20th century feminist quietly but assiduously ploughing her furrow and giving voice to the downtrodden silenced by both society and history.

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The Death of Lucy Kyte returns to the scene of the infamous, real-life Red Barn murder in Upson’s home town of Polstead, Suffolk, in 1827 when local woman Maria Marten was killed by her lover William Corder.

Determined to give the legendary murder a new slant, Upson weaves a slowly unfolding and seductive mystery which sees the village still living under a dark shadow over 100 years after Maria’s life was cruelly cut short.

Add a fascinating tribute to the plays and ballads which still flourish around the grisly aftermath of the murder and subsequent trial and execution of Corder, and a palpable sense of growing tension, and the stage is set for Upson’s terrific reconstruction of a past both real and imagined .

When Josephine unexpectedly inherits a remote Suffolk cottage from her godmother Hester Larkspur, a former actress and a woman she can barely remember ever meeting, the will contains two strange codicils.

Josephine must clear up Hester’s belongings and papers, deciding what should be made public, and if she doesn’t agree, the cottage and its contents are to be destroyed ‘in their entirety’ without inspection by any person.

The will also grants an unknown woman called Lucy Kyte the right to take ‘whatever she most needs’ from the house ‘in the hope that it will bring her peace.’

Hester seems to have gambled on Josephine’s curiosity and it has paid off. The challenge is intriguing and a rural cottage could be just the bolt hole Josephine needs from the home she shares with her widowed father in Inverness.

To add to the mystery, Hester’s cottage is close to the scene of the infamous Red Barn murder and Hester herself played Maria in productions of a play about the case.

At first glance, Polstead appears to be a picture of rural tranquillity but the century-old murder still haunts the tight-knit village, and Hester’s isolated cottage seems ‘watchful and wary.’

As Josephine settles in, she knows that something dark has a tight hold on this small and reserved community. Is it just superstition, or is there a very real threat that is frightening the locals? Could the truth be related to the mysterious Lucy Kyte, who no one in the village admits to knowing?

With evil closing in, Josephine must untangle historic tragedy from present danger and prevent a deadly cycle from beginning once more…

Upson is at the top of her game in The Death of Lucy Kyte as she stitches together a multi-layered story studded with nuggets of history, dark strands of disturbing truths and a sparkling literary style that speaks of inventive plotting and acute observation.

It’s a haunting, thrilling story which needs no reference to earlier Josephine Tey novels but is guaranteed to leave satisfied customers eager to seek out and devour the back titles.

A classy and compelling series…

(Faber, paperback, £7.99)