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Angel with Two Faces, by Nicola Upson.

June 29, 2012

Angel with Two Faces: A Mystery Featuring Josephine Tey, by Nicola Upson. New York : Harper, c2009.

A well-written mystery set in Cornwall, England, in the 1930s and featuring writer Josephine Tey as a major character.

Along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayer, Josephine Tey was one of the women writers of golden age of mystery. Now she reappears as a character in Angel with Two Faces, the second novel in a series by Nicola Upson. In this book Tey is starting to write a second mystery story herself, while visiting the family estate of her longtime friend Archie Penrose, himself a detective at Scotland Yards. But mysterious deaths pull her and the readers into a search for the culprit, immersing us all a web of long-held secrets.

As with the mysteries by Tey and the others, this story is more about how people behave under pressure than gory crime. We meet a variety of interesting residents from Cornwall. The closely woven community, where Upson has lived, is well depicted and the particular landscape lovingly described. But for Upson, the beauty thinly masks the darkness in both landscape and the community. Upson deals sensitively with homosexuality which could have destroyed a man’s career and with incidents of sexual abuse and violence that occur in local households, topics which Tey herself would not have publicly discussed.

What delighted me most were the simple sentences stating profound insights that Upson slipped almost casually into the text. When Tey visits the stables and finds a horse that had been used in the battles of World War I, she comments that it is sometimes too easy to justify the costs of war. A woman, repeatedly beaten by her husband explains,

Of course, we shouldn’t put up with that—but somehow we all do. You get used to the bruises, but not the humiliation—and it’s the humiliation that keeps you quiet. Men understand that.

Upson is good at her craft. She knows, as Tey says, “the demands of a medium which is as disciplined as any sonnet.” As secrets get told, several suspects appear, but in the end Upson surprises us. But her book is not flawless. The way everyone suddenly revealed what they had hidden for years is a bit hard to believe. I found it hard to understand the closeness between Tey and Penrose that lacked a hint of passion. My daughter, who loaned me the mystery, assures me that if I had started with the first book in the series I’d have a better understanding. Other than that, the story stands alone without reference to its predecessor.

On her website, Upson explains that she deliberately chose to write books that blend factual details of Tey’s life with fiction created to tell a fuller story. Since our discussion of historical fiction, I thought about how well Upson dealt with the genre’s inherent tensions. Overall, I’d say she did well. The mood of England after World War I is clear in the book, as is fear for another war. I simply don’t know enough about Tey to judge Upson’s depiction of her life, but the little I found online agreed with Upson’s story. At the very least, I found nothing jarring and anachronistic about her treatment of Tey or Cornwall or the 1930s.

I heartily recommend Angel with Two Face for anyone who enjoys intelligent mysteries enhanced with perceptively described characters.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 30, 2012 3:28 am

    I had problems with the first in this series, especially with the way in which she dealt with real people who were not that long dead, and so haven’t gone back to it. Perhaps I should give her the benefit of the doubt and try another just to be sure I wasn’t over-reacting.

    • July 1, 2012 10:50 am

      Maybe you’d like this one better, maybe not. At least there don’t seem to be real people in it. But hearing your complaint, I trust her a bit less. Not a great read, but for me an enyoyable one.

  2. July 2, 2012 7:02 pm

    And I thought Agatha Christie was the only female in that league. This is a fine review. Obviously, Upson is celebrating Tey. Thank you for sharing

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