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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Fear in the Sunlight by Nicola Upson

Harper Paperbacks, 432 pages, $14.99, c2012

Within the last few years, it’s become the fashion to exhume real people and make them characters in fictional renderings of what-could-have-been episodes in their lives. Siggie “Sandman” Freud, Chuck “Poorboy” Dickens, Winnie “Dawg” Churchill (or his secretary, actually), Nellie “Fly” Bly, Dash “Skinny” Hammett, Artie “Doc” Doyle, to name a few, have become informal private eyes in this way. Nicola Upson has hit pay dirt with her series starring author Josephine Tey, who wrote mysteries from the late 1930s to early 1950s. Upson’s series is charming but not cozy, witty but not snobbish, stylish but not arch.

Fear in the Sunlight is the fourth book in the series and is less a mystery than a speculative look into Tey’s private life. However, Alfred Hitchcock does appear with his entourage, and there are dead bodies. The tally at the end is significant, but many are off-screen, as it were. The two or three murders for which Tey and her friends and lovers are present are gruesome, and indicate a malevolent, personal reason behind them. It is the unexpected bitter that Tey must take with the sweet, because she and her friends are at the resort of Portmeirion in Wales to celebrate her 40th birthday at the same time that Hitchcock, et al. are there. (Some of you may recall Portmeirion as the odd and whimsical setting for The Prisoner television series with Patrick McGoohan.)

Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, have connections with Tey’s group. In addition, Reville hopes to talk Tey into allowing them to film A Shilling for Candles. (Note: This was indeed filmed by Hitchcock and renamed “Young and Innocent.”) Like cuckoo’s eggs in a foreign nest, abnormal personalities are clasped unknowingly to innocent bosoms, and way, way, way into the book, the victims are revealed. Shortly thereafter, a solution is provided. But, wait, there’s a whole lot of book to go. That’s because Fear in the Sunlight begins from an unusual point: 1954, London. Tey has been dead for two years, Archie Penrose (Tey’s great and good suitor and friend) is about to retire from Scotland Yard. The action in Portmeirion took place eighteen years previously, in 1936. It is brought to Penrose’s attention that there is a serial killer in jail in Los Angeles who claims to have been the real killer at Portmeirion. It’s flashback time.

There are a lot of characters to meet: Tey’s group, Hitchcock’s group, resort people, townspeople. There are longstanding tragedies and hidden relationships. Tey’s role is microscopic with regard to the crime and gigantic with regard to her own personal affairs. Penrose is central to the mystery and is a bystander or participant at most important events. It’s his gig.

Nicola Upson acknowledges several sources for information on the Hitchcocks. She also must have researched the heck out of Tey. It is noteworthy that Upson uses the name Josephine Tey, the nom de plume for Elizabeth MacKintosh, for her headliner, perhaps intentionally distancing herself from the real person upon whom her character is based. Tey was the public face for a very private person. I have no idea if Tey had to come to terms with her romantic feelings for a woman named Marta Fox. I have no idea if Archie Penrose was a real person. Is that segment of Upson’s story spun from whole cloth? If yes, does it cast a shadow of credibility upon Upson’s books? My guess is, not really. Calling her character by the name of a real person gives Upson a leg up with her readers. They are probably already fans of Tey’s books. They can “hear” her voice, can guess at her values and stands, and come prepared with expectations about how Upson’s mysteries will run. Fear in the Sunlight is a little out of the ordinary, but it is very moving about what people are capable of doing for and to others.

Where did the title come from? Here is Hitchcock in the book: “Fear of the dark is natural, we all have it, but fear in the sunlight … where it is so unexpected — that is interesting.”

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