Yes, that’s right – a half-read book – not a thing I often confess to lately as I am tending to

a. choose books I *want* to read
b. usually get through what I’m reading or abandon it fairly early

However, this book bucked the trend a little…

The short version of the story is that OH got me the fourth book in the series for Christmas because it features Portmeirion, which we both love. However, when I told him it was the fourth, he then got me the first three for Valentine’s Day! (How sweet!) But he didn’t realise that I had tried with the first book once before when I borrowed it from the library and I stalled quite early on.

Nevertheless, as I had been given these as a gift, and as I love Josephine Tey’s books, I figured I would have another go and persevere a bit more.

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Basically, Upson’s series of books are written on the basis that the writer “Josephine Tey” is a character investigating murders alongside her policeman friend Archie Penrose. This first tale starts with “Josephine” travelling down from her home in Scotland to sort out some theatrical business concerning her successful play “Richard of Bordeaux”. She befriends a young woman fan on the train, who is then murdered in a fashion that points towards the play and so “Josephine” and Archie are drawn into the investigation.

I won’t say much more about the plot for two reasons:

a. in case you are going to read this book and I spoil it for you
b. I actually didn’t really care very much at all!

The problem is that I *really* wanted to like this book. As I mentioned, Josephine Tey’s books are some of my favourite classic crime novels; “The Daughter of Time” got me really fascinated with Richard III; and my recent re-read of “The Franchise Affair” was a knockout. On top of all this, I actually enjoy reading books where real people become characters – I’ve read most of Gyles Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde mysteries (they’re a hoot!) and also Matthew Pearl’s “The Dante Club” and “The Poe Shadow”. So what went wrong here?

Well. I’ve thought about it a bit and come up with a number of reasons why I didn’t get on with this book (and I really did try – sat down and read one-third of it in one go to see if I hadn’t tried hard enough last time). Firstly, I have to say I found the writing a bit plodding in places – the construction is quite self-conscious, dropping references in so we know where this is happening, who it is happening to and who they are/why they are famous etc. One particular chapter had a sequence of paragraphs told from the point of view of at least 8 characters to introduce them one after the other which really made for difficult reading and put me off. And I found the characters in the main unconvincing and rather cardboard too  – none of them came alive, or leapt off the page, for me; not even “Josephine” herself, and it’s crucial that she should be believable. I didn’t actually care who had murdered the girl, or why, or whether they got away with or not, or whether “Josephine” was in peril. In fact, I found it hard to differentiate the characters as they really didn’t take on much identity of their own. There was really not much sparkle and atmosphere throughout.

Another issue I wasn’t convinced by (and which I’ve noticed other reviewers have highlighted) is her treatment of the gay characters. There is plenty of up-front discussion of homosexuality which really isn’t credible for the time in which the book is set. Don’t forget that in the 1930s it was a criminal offence and even in theatrical circles I would imagine there was much more discretion than is displayed here!

You might notice that I’ve been putting the character “Josephine” in quotes, because I think this is where the book fell down fundamentally for me. Josephine Tey was a pseudonym used by a shy woman for her detective novels, and who wrote her plays under a male pseudonym. Therefore, to have a character with this name is bizarre because if the real writer of “Richard of Bordeaux” had been visiting London for theatrical reasons, they would have been calling her Elizabeth! The muddling of pseudonyms is not the only issue I have. Despite my liking of real people as characters (declared above!) I felt decidedly uncomfortable about this particular blending of real and imaginary. For a start, Tey’s life is still very recent to start using her as a character in fiction, and people in her life and plays (like Gielgud, who made his name in “Richard of Bordeaux”) still seem very recently alive to me – not enough time has elapsed. To use aliases and inventions for many of characters but expect us to believe in a fictionalised Tey is clumsy and to be honest it comes across as a little lazy – why not just create new and interesting characters if you have a story to tell, instead of hanging a thin plot on a real person and expecting us to believe in them. And the aforementioned Wilde and Poe were larger-than-life characters not remotely averse to putting themselves in the public eye; I imagine they would have no problem with featuring in another author’s fiction as long as they took centre stage! However, Tey is a different matter and I found myself thinking she would actually hate this kind of attention.

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I don’t normally write really negative reviews because I know it must take an immense amount of work to write and produce a book – I’m sure I couldn’t do it. But I actually couldn’t be bothered to finish this;  the fact that I didn’t engage with the characters at all, so much so that after reading one-third of the book I had no interest at all in finding out what happened to them, says all that needs to be said. Instead of struggling on any further, I skipped to the end to find out whodunnit and then put it back on the shelf. Whether any of the other volumes will make it off the tbr remains to be seen….