Review: An Expert in Murder

Ever since I ran out of Agatha Christie novels my relationship with mystery novels has not been the same. It used to be unabashed enthusiasm but now it´s mostly apprehension. So, did this one convince me?

An Expert in Murder features author Josephine Tey who travels to London for the final week of her long-running play Richard of Bordeaux. However, a young women she met on the train is murdered and inspector Archie Penrose suspects a connection to Josephine and her play.

I think I should mention that I have yet to read any work by Elizabeth Mackintosh, neither the plays under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot nor her novels, which were published under the name Josephine Tey. The use of the writer as a character did not cause any problems for me, I don´t know if it causes fans of her works not to read this mystery.

My problems with this book, at least in the beginning, were my expectations. I thought this would be a nice cozy crime, and was rather put off by the depressive mood of it. Then I couldn´t keep track of the characters, which was not helped by the shifting narrative. I dislike this in mystery novels, and prefer to stay with the sleuth because I want to figure out whodunnit and letting the murderer narrate parts without giving away that he is the murderer feels like cheating.

The second half got better, or I simply got used to the style. There is a lot to like about this book, I really enjoyed the setting of London and the West End. The connection to the theatre makes for a lot of drama and chaos, and when all was solved I could only agree with Penrose

`God, it´s like something out of a Greek tragedy´

For the most part I thought that Upson wrote well, some passages were even beautiful. But a couple of times I noticed that she spelled things out that were unnecessary and I rather felt like she thought I was too stupid to figure it out myself. It didn´t happen too often but enough to irritate me:

`Don´t you think it´s a little late for such a sudden change of heart, X?´Y said, emphasising the last word in a way which scorned the relationship.

I didn´t want to spoil the mystery for anyone so I hope you still get the meaning with the substituted X and Y. Perhaps I´m just being picky but I really felt it unnecessary to explain, especially since the the word is put into italics and thus emphasized enough.

Upson wonderfully recreates the atmosphere of the 1930s though, which is probably why I found the book so depressing at first. Most of the characters have lost someone in the war or have been in the war and have been irrevocably changed by it. The description of London in the 30s was also beautiful, I could practically imagine walking down St Martin´s Lane to see Richard of Bordeaux.

A lot of the characters were also surprisingly open about their sexuality, I suppose the theatre was a bit of a protected haven in which they did not have to hide their homosexuality. But some characters really tell Penrose a lot of private details. Still, Upson mostly creates interesting three dimensional characters. I liked their strong opinions about the horror of war, how it currupts all sides, the stance the female characters took that they deserved to expect work and love, and I felt for the victim´s uncle who for the first time in his life has someone looking at him in fear and is forever changed by it.

I mostly liked Archie Penrose and the theatre crowd. I also enjoyed sergeant Fallowfield´s character, he makes for a bit of comic relief with his crazy driving and love of detective fiction but is still competent. Josephine Tey I found to be a bit bland as a character, but she slowly grew on my towards the end so perhaps I´ll like her more in the next book.

So yes, I´m curious about the second book even though I did not love this book. It´s still a good book which I would recommend to you, I´m just very picky when it comes to mystery novels and I think I would have enjoyed this one more if it had just been a novel and not a mystery.

Some of my favorite passages:

The bars on her small electric fire, inadequate at the best of times, had not glowed for many days now, as every spare penny she earned was spent on words rather than heat.” (55)

Cancer had a habit of eroding morally as well as physically, and everything he loved was under threat.” (65)

`Brisena?´ Fallowfield looked blank. `My typewriter. I dedicated the book to her because she worked so hard to finish it.” (83)

`Women need both- love and work- and these days they can have it. Lydia´s got the right to expect both.” (130)

But he said the crowds in the city as war broke out were really quite terrifying: when the population was united like a mob, all the instincts of hatred and prejudice were given free rein and nobody questioned them. It was as if everyone had reverted to innate violence, with all the reason and mercy just swept away.´” (179)

The worst thing was the way they stamped on any solidarity between the women; it would have been bearable if we could have helped each other through it, but we were constantly seperated and played off against one another (. . .).” (267)

(. . .) even now there was an unbearable void between those who had fought it and those who had not (. . .)” (288)

Have any of you read Josephine Tey´s mysteries and can recommend one to me?

16 thoughts on “Review: An Expert in Murder

  1. I find with the mystery genre that I have a very specific taste too. I agree with you that its more enjoyable when it’s anchored around the detective.
    You might have read all of Christie’s books, but you still have more upcoming Flavia ones to look forward to! I’m loving The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag so far! 🙂

    1. Hehe, that´s a fantastic dedication, right? It makes me want to check every Josephine Tey book to see whether she really did something like this or if it´s entirely fictional.

  2. Expectations are very tricky things. They keep ruining books for me lately! I’m sorry you didn’t feel more enthusiastic about this. But London in the 1930’s? I’m tempted 😛

    1. I really think you´ll enjoy her description of the 30s, it´s the part I liked best. The mystery was still pretty good, that I didn´t love it is just because of my pickness with crime books. Don´t let me turn you away from this book!

  3. I haven’t read any Tay but the cover of this is beautiful and very Agatha Christie-esque. You’ve read ALL of Christie? Wow! I’ve read probably around a quarter. I love Miss Marple. You should try Agatha Raisin. That’s also a pretty good mystery series (from the grand total of one that I’ve read and one more lined up 🙂 ).

    1. The cover is probably what drew me to this book (I´m such a sucker for a great cover). I´ve read all of her crime books, but I´ve yet to read her autobiography and memoir. I started reading her works when I was ten and that´s what kept me busy for years 🙂 But it´s great that you still get to read new-to-you books of her.
      I´ve actually checked out Agatha Raisin and the potted garden (only one that was in the library) today. I´m VERY curious about it 🙂

  4. I love The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, it’s my favourite mystery ever. That could be because it features a lot of history in it! It’s innovative, re-evaluating a historic crime, that of Richard III. And I didn’t know she was a character in a mystery series! I recently saw one that featured Charlotte Bronte too, but don’t remember the title. I’m on and off with mysteries, right now off (binged on them too much last year), but still love to talk about them. You might like Louise Penny’s mysteries, they’re set in this small village in Quebec that I’d love to visit and have a very cozy feel to them. And my favourite Agatha Christie is Sad Cypress, since you mentioned her. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the reommendation, I´ll see what Tey books I can unearth from my library. She´s a character in this book, and Upson already published a sequel, perhaps you should check them out 🙂

      I love Agatha Christie and am always trying to find cozy mysteries like hers, I love Sad Cypress as well.

      Thanks for telling me about Louise Penny, I´ll try her works out. Have you tried Ann Granger´s new series? It´s a cozy-ish crime set in the Cotswolds.
      And thanks for stopping by!

  5. Nice review! I haven’t heard of Nicola Upson before, and so it would be interesting to try reading her books. Because you mentioned something above (I don’t want to tell what it is, because it might be a spoiler), what do you think of Agatha Christie’s ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’? I loved it and it is my favourite Christie novel, though the ending was unconventional.

    1. I´m curious what you´d think of Upson´s books as you´re such an Agatha Christie fan as well 🙂

      I really liked The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, I´m not sure but I think it might be the first I´ve ever read of her works. I actually like the twist although I think Christie is the only one who can make this narrative thing work for me. I prefer the classic resolution though.

      But it might also have to do with Poirot as detective in this one, I associate Miss Marple with the more classical plots 🙂 Though I actually prefer Poirot just the tiniest bit 🙂 I think in terms of structure cards on the Table might be one of my favorites.

      1. I will search for this Upson book. Interesting to hear your thoughts on ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’. Interesting to also know that you like Poirot a tiny bit more than Miss Marple 🙂 I haven’t read a lot of Miss Marple, but I will remedy that soon. I will add ‘Cards on the Table’ to my ‘TBR’ list and I will read it soon. Which is your favourite Miss Marple book?

        1. Hmmh, difficult, my favorite Miss Marple book. . . I love Murder at the Vicarage, Sleeping Murder, 4.50 from paddington 🙂 I hope you´ll like cards on the table! 🙂
          Btw, I got Tan´s The Arrival from the library!

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