Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Partners in Crime by Nicola Upson

There was something a while back on Twitter that got me thinking - one of those polls where you put contrasting crime writers together to see what a collaboration of their work might look like. Although it wasn’t listed as one of the options, the combination that instantly sprang to mind was Josephine Tey and Margery Allingham - now that’s a book I would love to read. 

Tey and Allingham admired each other’s work and were roughly contemporary, with their first detective novels appearing a year apart: Allingham’s The White Cottage Mystery in 1928 and Tey’s The Man in the Queue (published under her Gordon Daviot pseudonym) in 1929. As far as I’m aware, the two never met in real life, although Tey spent a lot of time in Essex, where Allingham lived. But that’s the beauty of fiction - things that you wish for can happen, and although they don’t go as far as collaborating on a novel in Dear Little Corpses, a chance meeting starts a lasting friendship, and they attempt to solve a crime that touches them both. I really can’t remember a time when I’ve had such fun in bringing two characters together.

They are, of course, very different writers, with contrasting styles - although both write beautifully. Their heroes - Albert Campion and Alan Grant - are much loved but very different men; and whereas Tey often referred in letters to periods of unashamed idleness, Allingham came from a ‘fiction factory’ of professional writers and had published more than eight million words by the time she was thirty-five. But the things they have in common are even more obvious: a deep love of the English countryside, expressed so tellingly in their books; an excitement for London and a passion for theatre (they could easily have met over a gin and tonic in the foyer of the Old Vic); and a fascination with crimes from real life, which filter into novels like The Franchise Affair, The Daughter of Time and The China Governess

Most importantly, though, Tey and Allingham share a wit and humanity which is very present in their work: part of the reason we love their books, I think, is because we love them. In each case, the voice that springs so vividly from these pages is wonderful company, and their books reward continued rereading in a way that very few crime novels do. I’m often asked how this series started, and the simplest answer is probably this: I wanted to get to know Tey better, to spend time with her beyond that small but perfectly formed collection of eight crime novels - nine if you count Kif.

And that’s another thing that she and Allingham have in common - they each addressed a world war through a book that was out of character with the rest of their work. Kif (also published in 1929 as Daviot) is Tey’s unflinching account of a boy’s struggle to find his place in society when he returns from fighting in the trenches. The Oaken Heart - Allingham’s only work of non-fiction, published in 1941 - is the story of an English village during the early days of the second world war. The village in question is Tolleshunt D’Arcy in Essex (more famous now for the Bamber murders at White House Farm, which lies on its outskirts) and the book has a cast of characters every bit as rich as Allingham’s novels. As much as I love her fiction, The Oaken Heart is my favourite of her books, and its candour and insight were a huge influence on Dear Little Corpses. She gave me my title, too, which is taken from one of her letters, quoted in Julia Jones’s wonderful biography, The Adventures of Margery Allingham.

At the time this book is set, Tey and Allingham still had their finest work ahead of them. I have no doubt that they’ll team up again further down the series, and I’m looking forward to it already.

Dear Little Corpses by Nicola Upson is published by Faber. (Out Now)

It takes a village to bury a child.1 September, 1939. As the mass evacuation takes place across Britain, thousands of children leave London for the countryside, but when a little girl vanishes without trace, the reality of separation becomes more desperate and more deadly for those who love her. In the chaos and uncertainty of war, Josephine struggles with the prospect of change. As a cloud of suspicion falls across the small Suffolk village she has come to love, the conflict becomes personal, and events take a dark and sinister turn.

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