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Nicola Upson’s series of mysteries featuring Josephine Tey are inherently multilayered: Tey was one pseudonym of real life novelist and playwright Elizabeth Mackintosh (1896-1952), now fully realized as a character in her own right. With The Death of Lucy Kyte, a true crime from the mid-1800s adds another layer to the more contemporary 1930s whodunit, memory playing off artifice and truth off fiction, leading to a surprising emotional payoff at the end. This is the fifth book in the series, and Upson deserves credit for making the book readily accessible to this first-time reader while dangling tidbits of back story that left me curious for more.
When Josephine Tey inherits a Suffolk cottage from a godmother she never knew, the will demands that she claim the space in person; additionally, there’s an effort afoot to find Lucy Kyte, another benefactor. Red Barn Cottage was the scene of a crime a century prior that still shadows the village. As Josephine tries to clean and refurbish the space, it haunts her in ways both immediate (the evidence of her godmother’s death is grim and unsettling) and spectral. The truth, when it comes, is profoundly disturbing.
While this is a tale for a dark and stormy night, Upson appears to be having great fun playing with genre and convention here. Tey has a female lover, Marta, with whom she has discreet trysts whenever possible. The two attend a performance of ‘Sweeney Todd’ to discuss godmother Hester’s life in the theater with Tod Slaughter (an actor in real life whose performance credits intersect neatly with the story here). While in the audience, Tey muses: “Melodrama was not unlike detective fiction in that sense, she thought: a dream world with dream justice, ordered as it should be, not as it was, and peopled with characters who behaved exactly as they were expected to and got what they deserved. Hester had lived most of her life in that world, and Josephine wished with all her heart that the illusion had not been shattered before her death.” This meta-analysis is a saving grace when the (true) legend of Maria Marten and William Corder plays out in diary entries from (fictional) Lucy, not only for easing the mood but reminding us how hard it can be to distinguish the thematic layers and players without a scorecard, or playbill as the case may be.
Before we learn what’s become of Lucy, the story of Hester’s final days is uncovered, and a most unlikely suspect revealed. Comeuppance is sadly in short supply, and before we’ve processed the outcome Lucy’s own story is drawing to an equally surprising finish. As with the other layers in the book, there are unexplained things that seem to be the work of ghosts throughout the story, but some are revealed to be trickery by the living while others remain mysterious. You wouldn’t think a reader in this day and age could be frightened by a closed box lid (it was closed when we left the room, wasn’t it?) being opened, but amid the story’s larger themes there are numerous chills of this type, and they’re surprisingly effective.
The Death of Lucy Kyte combines elements of a psychological thriller, ghost story, and historical mystery, peppered with big scares along the way. Fans will dive in with relish, and those new to the series will likely loop back to volume one to learn what they’ve been missing. Buy it for the housewarming of someone’s summer place and see if you’re cursed or thanked in return.
The Death of Lucy Kyte
By Nicola Upson
Bourbon Street Books
Paperback, 9780062195456, 368 pp.