Review: Nicola Upson – Two for Sorrow

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.

Thanks to Chris Simmons from crimesquad for giving me a copy of this book. The book has also been reviewed at Eurocrime,

Review: Aly Monroe – Icelight

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m a big fan of historical crime fiction. I’m not particularly choosy about the period in which the novel is set but it does need to be well written. One award that recognises excellence in this genre is the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger which announced last week its 2012 winner, Icelight by Aly Monroe. I had only reviewed one book on the list, the excellent Prague Fatale so I was keen to read the winner.

Icelight is set in 1947 London, the winter of the deep freeze. Forget everything that you have read in Scandinavian crime fiction about the romance of a cold climate. In post-war Britain, it is unrelentingly grim. Water is freezing in taps, fires are unlit due to a coal shortage and coats and scarves are worn inside the house for warmth. Against this backdrop of harsh deprivation we enter the world of counter-intelligence where Russian and American officials dine in luxury at London’s top class hotels on food of dubious provenance.

Peter Cotton is working on the Malayan Desk in the Colonial Department when he is seconded to Operation Sea-snake. His task is to rout out homosexuals in key positions in British society who are considered to be a security risk. An atomic scientist commits suicide after losing his security clearance and to investigate the man’s death, Cotton has to negotiate the inner workings of both British intelligence services, Special Branch, MPs and Glasgow gangs.

I have to admit a weakness for spy stories and I enjoyed this book very much. It took a while to get going; there was plenty of background information on Peter Cotton going about his job and lunching with various agencies in an attempt to gauge what exactly was the security risk posed by homosexuals. The wonderful descriptions of government bureaucracy, establishment suspicion of the post-war Labour government and attempts by ordinary people to feed their families occasionally overshadowed what was a fairly complex plot.

The character of Peter Cotton was very engaging. Icelight is the first book I’ve read by this writer, but it is the third in the series. There were occasional references to the two previous books, particularly to Cotton’s sojourn in the US but it didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the book. In fact I am likely to go back and read the first two in the series. He has an romance in Icelight with a young Czech girl working in the theatre which is a transient affair and serves merely to highlight the situation of refugees seeking a new life in Britain and the suspicion that they worked under.

Overall I thought the book excellent and although the blurb made comparisons to Le Carre, I thought it more in the vein of the novels of Alan Furst. The book’s greatest strength in my opinion was to show how much Britain has moved on as a society since 1947 with the legalisation of homosexuality, the expectation of a national health service and the acceptance of a Labour government in mainstream politics.

The book has also been reviewed at Crime Scraps and Eurocrime.