Christmas Eve. A snowbound castle atop a cut off island in Cornwall. Friends and strangers, including a policeman and a movie star gather for a glittering party. A couple of bodies are found gruesomely killed. Surely another Agatha Christie TV special?
No. This is the latest in the wonderful series which features golden age crime writer Josephine Tey who always seems to land up in a rather glamorous setting with a murder to solve. I love Tey herself as a writer (not only of novels but plays and once of a novel turned into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock) and was delighted how well Upson has transferred the real -life woman into this excellent series. There is always a flavour of theatre and movie glamour thrown in as Josephine’s lover Marta is a designer for stage and screen.
The year is 1938 and storm clouds hang over Europe so everyone would like a festive break, but when Archie Penrose the policeman is asked to escort a famous female actress down to Cornwall, little does he expect it to be Marlene Dietrich, or that at her hotel a couple of Nazis will be seen leaving her room. The party is to raise funds for Jewish refugees, but are all the guests there for charitable reasons and is this going to be spy intrigue as well as a crime thriller? It adds a touch of the exotic to the whole story too.
The plot has been set with a memory of a previous horrendous crime that Penrose had worked on with two young children found hiding from their murderous mother who had killed all her other children. Suddenly arriving in Cornwall, the home from where he had left to join the force, memories of the past swirl in Penrose’s mind. Will everyone be safe as the sea sweeps across to cut them off and the snow begins to fall heavily?
Josephine and Marta are part of the practical group including the hostess Hilaria St Aubyn (based on a real family member from St Michael’s Mount) who find themselves suspecting the other guests and taking care of distraught partners as the bodies start to stack up in some brutal and strange ways totally worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.
As the plot is set over Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day it’s an ideal read as you also settle down in the dark evenings with your mulled wine and mince pies, wincing at the loss of appetite murder can cause, yet devouring another whodunnit amongst the rich and famous as a relentless blizzard encircles the characters.
Upson’s novels are worthy of some TV drama adaptations and I’d love to consider the right actress for Josephine Tey, the straight laced single carer from Scotland who lets the other side of her personality loose when she escapes to London or other settings amongst the dramatic set circling theatreland. There would be great costumes, red herrings and often women who take the lead on outwitting the murderer. Archie Penrose has a hint of love interest with Dietrich herself adding to the romance of the whole novel!
Loved it as a personal read and book clubs need not worry if they have not read others in the series, although I hope they’d be encouraged to dip further into Josephine Tey’s lively lifestyle. Crime and Christmas. Match made in heaven.
Review by Philipa Coughlan
Hardback ISBN 978-0-571-35324-8
Published by Faber & Faber Ltd September 2020