The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson

death of Lucy kyteWhen Josephine Tey’s godmother, the actress Hester Larkspur, dies, Josephine is astonished to inherit her home, a remote cottage in Suffolk. Needless to say, things aren’t as simple as that – there is a second beneficiary by the name of Lucy Kyte who nobody seems to have heard of.

A shadow hangs over the house – it is close to the location of the notorious Red Barn murder that took place nearly a century before, a murder that still casts a shadow over the local community. Is it possible that danger still lurks from a century before – or is there a more present threat to Josephine? And who exactly is Lucy Kyte?

This is the fifth book from Nicola Upson featuring Josephine Tey as the sleuth. I reviewed the first, An Expert In Murder, a good while ago, and I rather enjoyed it. It was a fairly traditional style of mystery, with well-written characters enhancing it, and I always intended to return to the series. Needless to say, I never got round to it until Faber & Faber sent me a copy of the latest in the series to review.

This is a completely different kettle of fish from the first novel. It’s a thoughtful tale, which takes its time to get going – that’s a bit of an understatement, to be honest. It’s not a traditional mystery, to be honest, but there is a whodunit element to the plot. It seems almost incidental to the main story, as the tale of what happened in the past is the core story that takes up the majority of the page count.

We’re not talking the sort of investigation as in, say, The Wench Is Dead by Colin Dexter, but more of a slow reveal of the truth behind the events of the past, and it’s a powerful and moving tale, especially at the end. I would encourage readers to persevere until you get to the end, as I imagine that those expecting a more traditional mystery might find their attention wandering.

I still have concerns about the use of Tey (Elizabeth McIntosh to give her real name) as I’m always a bit concerned when real people whose lives overlap with people who are still living have their lives fictionalised. Admittedly Tey was a bit of a private person so there is plenty of scope to add detail, and she is not exactly well known, but it still seems an odd choice. Why not create a fictional character based on Tey rather than use Tey herself? It’s probably just me who finds it odd though, so don’t let it detract you from reading the book.

As I said, don’t expect a traditional mystery but a more complex literate novel that takes its time to reach its heartbreaking conclusion. Recommended.

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10 comments

  1. I too read An Expert In Murder and rather enjoyed it; no more than rather, though, so I haven’t followed up on the series. I also shared your slight queasiness about the use of Tey as a character. And it didn’t help that all the while I was thinking about how much I always enjoy rereading Tey’s own work!

    This new title sounds to be more like my cup of, er, tey, though, so I’ll look out for it.

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  2. It’s not just you that finds it weird. It makes me uncomfortable, enough that I’ve never read them despite recommendations and the fact that An Expert In Murder sounds like exactly my cup of tea in every other respect.

    To be clear: I’m not against fictionalizing real people at all. I think there’s hardly anything that should be off limits in storytelling, as long as there’s a point behind it. But certain things require a far stronger justification for inclusion than others. Having talked to people who’ve read the series I don’t get the impression that Tey is being used for any particular reason, beyond the fact that Upson decided she wanted to. That doesn’t sit well with me.

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  3. I’ve enjoyed the ones I’ve read–the first two–and I have the third waiting for my to decide to grab it off the TBR stack. I can’t say that the use of Tey bothers me, but I do see your point about why use her. I can’t think of a reason that makes the use of her absolutely compelling–although I will say that Upson’s treatment of her is interesting.

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  4. “It’s probably just me who finds it odd though,”

    Nope, it’s me too! We know so little about Tey that the approach taken here can’t even be seen, really, as quasi-biographical, can it? I mean, for example, we don’t really know anything about Tey’s sexual life, do we? If someone were doing this with Christie or Sayers, for example, there would be a lot more facts upon which to base it.

    Coincidentally, I just did a blog piece on Tey (To Love and Bes Wise) and was thinking of taking a second look at this series.

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    • I think one of my concerns is that given the lack of biographical info on Tey, then the next best thing becomes taken as fact. Which, for such a recent life, is the concern that I have.

      On the other hand, I can’t find any info concerning complaints from friends/relatives of Tey so maybe it’s not such an issue

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