Review: Nicola Upson – Fear in the Sunlight

Nicola Upson’s series, featuring real life crime writer Jospehine Tey as a fictional character, has begun to be a favourite of mine. The Upsoncharacter of Tey comes to life in the pages of Upson’s books and there is a nice blending of fact and fiction to provide a good meaty read. Fear in the Sunlight however, is my favourite book so far giving a vivid portrayal of the incestuous world of the 1930s film industry as well as the eccentric grandeur of Portmeirion in Wales.

In July 1954, Inspector Archie Penrose is informed of the killings of three women on the film set of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window.’ An American detective Tom Doyle travels to London to bring the news to Archie and reveals that he has a suspect in custody who has confessed to these murders. However Doyle believes that there is a link to an incident 18 years earlier when three violent deaths occurred during a week-end hosted by Hitchcock in the resort of Portmeirion.  Josephine Tey was being feted by Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville who were hoping to adapt Tey’s novel A Shilling for Candles into a film. Coinciding with her fortieth birthday, Tey is soon drown into a drama that involves complex family relationships, old grudges and petty professional jealousies.

This was a substantial read, the paperback edition running to 432 pages but I found it an absorbing book both for the plot and the descriptions of the film world. The character of Tey was perhaps the least surprising because she has been well developed over previous novels in the series, so she remains as ever confused by the conflicting priorities in her life and protective over any adaptations of her crime and historical fiction. However, in a poignant piece of writing, the book opens in 1954 with Archie mourning the death of Josephine and remembering the golden summer in Portmeirion. Archie in fact is the principal character in this book, both in terms of recalling the events of 1936 and in tying up the loose ends with the discovery of the decades old secret that brought about the original murders.

The descriptions of the film world is fascinating and Hitchcock comes across as far more benign than in other accounts I’ve read although he clearly takes sadistic pleasure in tormenting the acolytes that surround him. But the Portmeirion setting, that strange and other worldly village built by Clough Williams-Ellis, allows the reader to be drawn into a film-like plot with larger than life characters committing acts through smoke and mirror special effects. Ultimately, I suppose the explanation behind the murders is a little unbelievable but its a credit to the writing that is doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the book.

In my opinion, this is one of the best historical mysteries being written at the moment and it shows that in careful hands, the use of real-life characters can be blended into fictional settings to provide an engrossing read.

Thanks to Chris Simmons from crimesquad.com for my copy of the book. Other reviews can be found at Eurocrime and Books Please.

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21 thoughts on “Review: Nicola Upson – Fear in the Sunlight

  1. What did you think of the others Sarah? I quite enjoyed the first one, not wildly enthusiastic, but then read another, with a Cornish setting? I thought it was dire, and haven’t pursued the series – even though I’m a big Tey fan. I’d try another with some trustworthy encouragement, which might be what you are providing… One thing I thought about both books was that they were curiously humourless and very long-winded – Tey was infuriating, opinionated, crass at times, snobbish – but she was a racy and amusing read, and kept her books short. Did you review the earlier Upson books? – would love to read your views.

  2. That’s a difficult one Moira as I’ve enjoyed this series from the beginning although the only book I’ve reviewed on this site is ‘Two for Sorrow’ https://crimepieces.wordpress.com/2012/09/14/review-nicola-upson-two-for-sorrow/. If you’ve given 2 books a go already, I usually consider that to have given a series a good chance. However, I think this is the best book so far. They are long reads, but here I enjoyed it all the way through. The book also has a few fashion moments, such as the slacks and halter necked top worn by one of the characters.

    I’ve only read ‘The daughter of Time’ by Tey but I enjoyed it very much and would like to read more of her books. I think in the books, she is Upson’s interpretation of her and it is key whether or not you believe that view. Thanks for the comment – you’ve made me think about my review!

    • Thanks that’s helpful – I’ll look at your review. I think, too, sometimes you can be really in the mood for a good long solid book that you can lose yourself in, and sometimes not in the mood and get impatient. So a book can catch you at the wrong moment, when another time you would have liked it. That’s me anyway…

  3. Sarah – I’m so glad you like this series as much as you do. I’m not, I admit, as far along in it as you are but I agree completely that Tey’s character is nicely developed and evolves. That takes talent, especially when one’s developing a series of fiction stories round a real-life person. I like Upson’s evocation of the era too – it feels authentic without being overdone.

    • Yes Margot. I’m often dubious about real life people appearing in fiction but here it works I think. And in this case, I like the fact that it is a fairly substantial read.

  4. I am glad you like this series. I have not read any of the books, so I have them to look forward to. Will read at least the first one this year, and I want to like the series. This one you have reviewed here sounds especially interesting because of the connection with Hitchcock. Thanks for a very informative review.

  5. I loved the first book but I was bitterly disappointed with the second. It was set in an area I know, just a few miles from home and Nicola Upson got it horribly wrong. But I’ve heard better reports about the next book and this sounds intereting, so maybe it’s time to give her the benefit of the doubt.

    • It’s always a shame when a writer doesn’t get your area quite right. I’ve been to Portmeirion and how she imagines it in the 1930s seemed to be convincing.

  6. A friend lent me the first in this series when we were away on holiday with (horror!) not enough books. It isn’t something I would ever have picked up for myself by a long shot but I really enjoyed it, despite usually having reservations about historical fiction and also fiction based on real characters. It was a nice, cosy read. I love Hitchcock and I love Portmeirion so it sounds as though I’d enjoy this just as much.

    • Interesting Marie as I love historical fiction but the trouble is not all of it is well written. I think this series is particularly good. And I love Hitchcock too.

  7. The whole Tey conceit is very appealing – I’ve still got An Expert in Murder on my TBR list. This one does sound great though – love the whole 1930s film industry subject. Bit put off by your take on the murder ‘solution’ though. Is it still worth the investment?

  8. Pingback: The Best of January’s Reading « crimepieces

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