I like historical mysteries but don’t read enough of them. After enjoying Aly Monroe’s Icelight I was determined to read more of the genre. Nicola Upson’s Two for Sorrow is the third book in a series which has as its protagonist the writer Josphine Tey. I was initially sceptical about having a well known crime novelist as a character in a book. It could err on pastiche but I was pleasantly surprised by this well-written and cleverly plotted crime story and am looking forward to reading more in the series.
In its setting, the book contrasts the drab hospitals and prisons in the first part of the twentieth century with the glamour of West End theatreland. When writer Jospehine Tey visits London from her Inverness home, she stays at the Cowdray Club, a women’s institution associated with the adjacent teaching hospital for nurses. Josephine has begun a new book focusing on the story of the notorious Finchley ‘baby farmers’, Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, who were hanged for their crimes in 1903. Celia Bannerman, who is involved in the management of the Cowdray Club, was a prison nurse at the time of the execution and Josephine hopes to get an insight into the conditions of Holloway prison to add authenticity to her manuscript. When Marjorie Baker, a young former inmate of the prison, is found cruelly killed in the run-up to a gala ball, police believe Marjorie may have discovered a secret the killer is desperate to remain concealed.
Although Josephine Tey has an important role in the developing narrative, I felt that Archie Penrose, Josephine’s old friend and police detective, was the pivotal character in the actual crime investigation. The story of the two baby killers is a fascinating one and although I often don’t like reading a novel within a novel, here I thought it worked very well indeed. In the extracts from Josephine’s manuscript, we get an insight into the state of Holloway prison at the beginning of the twentieth century and the horror of women’s executions that would take another sixty years to abolish. Cleverly, the author doesn’t have Josephine do much investigating – she’s no Miss Marple, instead she continues her research and writing which does eventually contribute to the police finding a solution to the case. There is also an interesting sub-plot involving Josephine’s love life which is based on real correspondence.
1930s London comes alive in this book, especially the areas around the West End and Covent Garden. The details given of the women’s clubs and theatre gatherings I found fascinating but it didn’t read like a period piece but a crime novel with a fresh engaging story. I’m looking forward to reading more of the series.