Oct/Nov 2010 Book Reviews

Featuring Miss Josephine Tey

Nicola Upson.
Two for Sorrow.

Faber & Faber. 2010. 388 pp.
ISBN: 9781571246335

Reviewed by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! "London. Holloway Gaol, Tuesday 3 Feb. 1903": Two women are about to be hanged for baby killing and, in the frosty, early-morning darkness of one cell, warder, Celia Bannerman, prepares to awaken one of them for the 9 AM arrival of the hangman and his escort. Thirty years later, writer Josephine Tey recreates the scene in an untitled chapter for her latest book. She is interested in the lives of the two women and in the effect of their actions and their deaths on those who knew them and were close to them.

If you look up 'Josephine Tey' on the internet, you will find that this was, in fact, one of the pseudonyms of a popular Scottish author, Elizabeth Mackintosh, who died in 1952. In Two for Sorrow, Nicola Upson has borrowed her name and some aspects of her life to tell her own mystery story.

Chapters purportedly written by Tey are interspersed with Upson's own chapters on imagined events in Tey's life and the horrific murder of a young woman employed by close friends of Tey. The murder is in some way connected to the hanging of the two women which Tey is investigating but now, thirty years later, the web of connections between this event and the current murder involves many of the Tey's friends and acquaintances. As the search for the killer evolves and the tangle of events is gradually unwoven, Upson skillfully and slowly reveals details which intrigue and puzzle everyone, including the reader.

The hanged baby-killers really did exist and Upson has used newspaper reports of the time as a basis for Tey's book research. Elizabeth Mackintosh (alias Tey) really did study at the Anstey Physical Training College, where Upson's Celia Bannerman has been a senior teacher. And the Cowdray Club, where much of Upson's dramatic action takes place, really did exist and was frequently Tey's residence when she was in London. Two for Sorrow, however, is a work of fiction and no matter what real names there are amongst Upson's characters (Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, for example, make an appearance) their thoughts and actions are Upson's invention.

Her Josephine Tey is a strong-minded, intelligent and independent woman, dedicated to her work but, now, embroiled in a real-life mystery. Her close friend Archie, who had been a friend of her lover who died during WWI, is now the detective investigating the murder; and his cousins, Lettuce and Ronnie (both women) run a dress-making business which specializes in theatre work. All this provides Upson with varied and fascinating material, as do the various women who frequent the Cowdray Club and the attached College of Nursing and are also involved in the murder investigation.

In spite of the developing love interest between Archie and Tey, the women's club, the nurses, and the theatrical acceptance of unconventional behaviour all allow Upson to inject a lesbian flavour to parts of her story, but this is lightly done and is unlikely to offend many modern readers. It is also the source of much humour and of some perceptive writing about female friendships, which were common in the aftermath of the Great War, when so many young men were killed and so many single women had no chance of marriage.

Two for Sorrow, I discovered after reading it, is the third of a series of books by Upson which feature Josephine Tey, but it can certainly be read on its own. And I found it gripping enough to make we want to read the earlier books.


Previous Piece Next Piece