Thursday, October 20, 2011

Book Review: TWO FOR SORROW by Nicola Upson

(Josephine Tey Series #3)

Pub. Date: August 2011
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Format: Paperback , 496pp
Sales Rank: 63,564
ISBN-13: 9780061451584
ISBN: 0061451584

Description (from the publisher):
They were the most horrific crimes of a new century: the murders of newborn innocents for which two British women were hanged at Holloway Prison in 1903. Decades later, mystery writer Josephine Tey has decided to write a novel based on Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, the notorious “Finchley baby farmers,” unaware that her research will entangle her in the desperate hunt for a modern-day killer.

A young seamstress—an ex-convict determined to reform—has been found brutally slain in the studio of Tey’s friends, the Motley sisters, amid preparations for a star-studded charity gala. Despite initial appearances, Inspector Archie Penrose is not convinced this murder is the result of a long-standing domestic feud—and a horrific accident involving a second young woman soon after supports his convictions. Now he and his friend Josephine must unmask a sadistic killer before more blood flows—as the repercussions of unthinkable crimes of the past reach out to destroy those left behind long after justice has been served.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars -- a truly fine historical novel and a complex mystery

My Thoughts:  In the past, I've shied away from novels centered around characters from another author's work or even that other author. Something about one author expanding upon another's creations or casting another author as a fictional character just didn't sit well with me. However, when I read about the series of books from Nicola Upson depicting Josephine Tey dealing with murders occurring within her circle of friends and acquaintances, I took a closer look. First of all, Josephine Tey is itself a psuedonym which Elizabeth Mackintosh used to publish her mystery novels. Secondly, Upson's series is set during the mid 1930's, a period when the British were not only still reeling from the devastating losses of World War I but also facing a growing awareness that another war was looming on the future's horizon. This setting fascinates me. But the element that really lured me onto the hook of this book is that Upson constructed her novel around the fictional Tey penning a novel about a real life event -- the 1903 executions of Amelia Sachs and Annie Waters for crimes related to baby farming. Wow! I just had to see how Upson pulled this off.

TWO FOR SORROW is the third book in the Josephine Tey series and, since I  hadn't read the first two books, that gave me pause. One of the difficulties of reading a mystery series out of order is that sometimes the resolution of a previous case is discussed, thus spoiling some of the pleasure of going back and reading that particular book. I was so intrigued by the premise of TWO FOR SORROW that I threw caution to the wind and was not disappointed. Though events in previous novels are referenced, it was done in such a way that I became more curious about them, not less. Another aspect that appealed to me is that Upson does not portray Tey as an amateur sleuth. Rather, Tey's close friend, Archie Penrose is a Scotland Yard Inspector. Josephine doesn't assist him in an active way but, because of the nature of their friendship and her proximity to those involved in the case, she does make contributions and is privy to more information than the press or the public. This perspective leant an authenticity to the story which might not have existed had Upson dressed Tey in Nancy Drew's sleuth suit.

The upshot is that I loved this book! Upson delivers a complex mystery in a richly drawn setting. Actually, two settings. I love when a piece of fiction offers me the opportunity to learn about actual historical events. In this case, I learned a lot about late 19th century attitudes toward unwed mothers and unwanted children as well as gaining a deeper understanding of the collective conciousness of England between World Wars I and II. TWO FOR SORROW has my highest recommendation for anyone who enjoys historical fiction. Before I even completed it, I purchased a copy of the first book in the series, AN EXPERT IN MURDER. Kudos to Nicola Upson.

*I will offer two caveats:  First, the murderer's treatment of the victim is quite gruesome and, though it fits the story and is not at all gratuitous, I found it difficult to read. Secondly, in this novel Josephine wrestles with the question of her sexuality. It wasn't clear if this was an ongoing issue from the previous two novels or a new development. It is handled with sophistication and is not at all salacious. Both the violence perpetrated on the victim and the question of Josephine's sexuality are in keeping with the storyline but not difficult to skim over if you so desire.

About the author (from the publisher):
Nicola Upson has written for a variety of publications, including the New Statesman, where she was a crime fiction critic. She also regularly contributes to BBC radio and has worked in the theater for ten years. She divides her time between Cambridge and Cornwall.

Disclaimer:  I won a copy of this book in a giveaway at Reviews from the Heart. I have not been compensated in any way whatsoever from the beginning of time to the end of days for my honest opinion of this book.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

I have to say that your caveats kind of diminish my desire to read this! :--) I appreciate knowing about it!

Audra said...

Wonderful review -- I think you quite deftly handled all the issues presented in the story and that thorny problem of hopping into a series midway. You articulated all my thoughts in a concise, sharper way!

Zibilee said...

Ok, this sounds seriously fabulous! I have never even heard of "baby-farming" and now am very curious and am going to have to go look this up. Also, it seems like this book deals with a lot of subjects that I am interested in, and it sounds like they were all handled in a really gripping way. Your review was quite wonderful, and now I am off to see how this book can make its way to my shelf!

bermudaonion said...

Oh man, that sounds wonderful! I may have to get this for my mother for Christmas. I know she'll pass it on to me.

Mystica said...

This sounds a wonderful story very well told. Thanks for the review.

Debbie Rodgers said...

I've read the first in this series - I hope you enjoy it as much as you did this one. Now, I want to hurry through the second so I can get to this book. It sounds multi-layered and fascinating!