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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

An Expert in Murder, by Nicola Upson

For those of who lament that “they don’t write ‘em like they used to,” this is a charming update of the classic British cozy, appropriately set in the ‘30’s and with one of the queens of the classic British cozy as heroine: Josephine Tey.

The story is set early in Tey’s career, when she is more famous as a playwright under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot than as a mystery author writing as Josephine Tey. On her way to London to see her latest production, she makes the acquaintance of an avid fan – who is later found dead amid props that suggest a connection to Tey’s play. Happily, Tey is good friends with the detective assigned to the case, the suave but troubled Archie Penrose, and agrees to use her insider knowledge of the production to help him investigate.

Upson, who has worked in and written about theater much of her life, uses her own insider knowledge to create a vivid glimpse into London’s West End at a time when England was still reeling from the last Great War and beginning to brace for the next one. Her research included interviews with John Guilgud, who starred in the actual production of Richard of Bordeaux and knew Tey well, and upon whom she has based her portrait of her show’s star.

Appropriately for a classic cozy, if a bit tiresomely for a modern reader, the mechanics of the mystery are a bit creaky, and the resolution a bit melodramatic. But this hardly distracts from the warm and fuzzy glow that envelopes readers as they sink into Upson’s elegant prose and are surrounded by her engaging and eccentric cast of characters.

The second in this series, An Angel with Two Faces, will be out in hardcover next month.

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