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.