Dear Little Corpses is the tenth book in Nicola Upson’s outstandingly intelligent and atmospheric Josephine Tey Mystery series, set in England in the 1930s and 1940s, and inspired by the Golden Age of crime writing.
For those new to a name which shone brightly in this period, Josephine Tey was a pseudonym used by the enigmatic Elizabeth Mackintosh, a Scottish writer 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 Cambridge graduate Upson’s cleverly plotted novels which see the best-selling crime author and playwright turn detective to solve cerebral mysteries and give a voice to the downtrodden silenced by both society and history.
Elegant, sophisticated and beautifully written, these stories blend fact and fiction, contrasting the stark realities of everyday life with the glamorous world of theatre and film during these middle century decades, and exploring hard-hitting issues that are as relevant today as they were eight or nine decades ago.
Here, we find Josephine at the dawn of the Second World War in early September of 1939. She is visiting the Suffolk cottage she inherited from her grandmother, and enjoying a brief holiday with her actress friend and lover, Marta, who will shortly be leaving for America to work on a new Hitchcock film.
Across the country, the mass evacuation of children from the big cities has started and Polstead residents are preparing to find homes for some of the children who are currently leaving behind their parents in London to stay in the countryside and escape the German bombs.
Josephine, who lives mainly in Scotland, is finding that the security she normally treasures at her Suffolk cottage is being overshadowed by the upcoming separation from Marta and the onset of war, and she has a deep sense of ‘slipping into an abyss.’
But when five-year-old local girl, Annie Ridley, goes missing only hours before the annual show, a cloud of suspicion falls across Polstead, the small village which Josephine has come to love over the years.
Meanwhile in London, Josephine’s good friend, DCI Archie Penrose of Scotland Yard, is investigating the murder of rent collector, Frederick Clifford, who was stabbed to death with a pair of tailor’s scissors in a block of workers’ flats.
It’s a death that has links to Polstead and when Archie arrives on the day of the show, he finds himself drawn into the disappearance of little Annie and a case that creates conflict amongst the residents as events turn more threatening than he and Josephine could ever have imagined.
Upson’s dark and compelling mystery explores the often hidden heartbreak and anguish of families and their children who were torn apart during the wartime mass evacuation programme. ‘How do you think these children feel, wrenched from everything they love through no fault of their own, from everything that makes them feel safe?’ asks the vicar’s wife in an impassioned plea to a villager reluctant to take in evacuees.
And there are many other moving moments in this superbly plotted novel which brims with rich period detail, the domestic realities of life in a close-knit community, and all set against the backdrop of the chaos and uncertainty of the first months of the war.
The search for the missing child becomes the catalyst for a hidden viper’s nest of secrets and lies that will poison the village with suspicion and accusation, and render its beautiful landscape a place far more ‘perilous, wide and unfathomable’ than it had first appeared to Archie Penrose.
Full of twists and turns, and the powerful gamut of emotions that we have come to expect from Upson’s classy and compelling novels, this piercing and perceptive story portrays each character with such exquisite precision that the reader can almost peer into the workings of their soul.
Dear Little Corpses is as much an incisive and intimate study of the menace simmering beneath a cosy community as it is a fascinating murder mystery, slipping effortlessly between places and people as toxic truths are slowly and shockingly revealed.
With its superlative fusion of fact and fiction, mystery and social insight, Dear Little Corpses can easily be read as a standalone but readers new to Upson’s series will almost certainly be left eager to seek out and devour all the back titles.
(Faber & Faber, hardback, £14.99)