Nicola Upson is the author of the Jospehine Tey mystery series, which started with An Expert in Murder. The ninth book in the series, The Dead of Winter, is published by Faber and Faber on 5 November 2020.
Nicola kindly answered a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about The Dead of Winter.
It’s set on St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall in December 1938, the Christmas before the war. I spend a lot of my time in Cornwall and I love it, but Josephine and Archie haven’t been there since Angel With Two Faces, the second book in the series, so they were due a return visit. Here, they’re attending a special event organised by one of Archie’s childhood friends to raise money for Baldwin’s refugee fund: there are blizzards, family tragedies, a very famous film star, and two strange and brutal deaths.
2. What inspired the book?
First and foremost, I wanted to write a proper Christmas mystery, with all the things that involves: snow, isolation, a gathering of strangers, fire and candlelight, and – of course – murder. Like lots of people, I’m strangely drawn to crime novels and ghost stories at this time of year, but to be honest, the best thing about a lot of the Christmas mysteries I’ve read has been the cover, so I suppose it was a challenge to myself to take those traditional ingredients and try to do something a bit different with them.
As with all my books, The Dead of Winter is inspired by real people, real places and real moments in history, in this case a true crime, an actress, and all the history and legend that makes St Michael’s Mount so special. Looking back, though, what resonates most with me now is the fear and uncertainty of that 1938 Christmas, when people were so aware of how life was about to change; all the usual pressures to make Christmas really count, to hold on tight to the people you love, were intensified a hundred fold; that suddenly feels very real, and very current.
3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you?
It varies from book to book. At first, when I was new to writing fiction, I planned the novels in more detail because that sense of structure was a vital comfort blanket. Now, I know much less about where I’m heading when I start, and occasionally, as with The Death of Lucy Kyte, I write myself a mystery in the opening chapters, setting out a load of clues and questions whose significance is as much a mystery to me as it is to Josephine and Archie!
I wanted The Dead of Winter to have a crucial twist; more than any of my other books, I wanted to fool people in the proper whodunnit tradition, and that twist came to me quite early on, but how to make it work was a much more gradual process.
4. The Dead of Winter is the 9th book in the Josephine Tey Mysteries series. Do the characters still surprise you?
Their richness still surprises me. I’ve always been fascinated by the real-life Josephine Tey – by the wonderful books that she wrote under that name, and by her other lives as Elizabeth MacKintosh or the playwright Gordon Daviot – but it still amazes me that focusing on one aspect of her life each time offers so much scope, be it her association with Alfred Hitchcock, a year-long love letter written to her by an actress, her life in the theatre or the radio plays she wrote for the BBC. And I’ve discovered so many other fascinating lives through writing these books, people who are not quite so famous but who were pioneers in their own right: Rowena Cade, creator of the Minack Theatre in Cornwall; Mary Size, Deputy Governor of Holloway; Val Gielgud, John’s older brother, who revolutionised radio drama at the BBC; Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, the visionary architect behind Portmeirion; Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, Edwardian baby killers sensationally hanged together in 1903; and Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife and lifelong collaborator, a scriptwriter and assistant director in her own right, and on set for every film her husband ever made. Similarly with this book, Hilaria St Aubyn – Josephine’s host at St Michael’s Mount – is based on a real person, another pioneer who did so much for her community.
5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
Reading, obviously, and I love theatre, cinema and live music, all of which I’m missing dreadfully at the moment. My partner and I have an allotment in Cornwall, and, although I’m very much the junior gardener in the relationship, there’s something so satisfying about all that fresh air and hard work. As for relaxing, a glass of wine on the beach at the end of the day, or a long drive with loud music would usually do the trick.
6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
That’s a terrible question! I think the honest answer is that I wouldn’t. There are lots of books which I love, which I can’t imagine never reading again, but I don’t have a favourite book, and I think every novel that I love enough to make it a candidate for this would be absolutely destroyed by exclusive rereading. What I love about books is their variety, their constancy no matter what sort of mood you’re in; like people, books are enriched by their relationship to each other, so if I couldn’t have that magic, I wouldn’t bother, hard as that would be.
7. I like to end my Q&As with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
I’m always surprised that nobody ever asks me what I’d want to ask the real Josephine Tey if we had five minutes on our own together. If I could put just one question to her that she had to answer truthfully, it would be this: who, in your life, have you loved?
About the Book
December 1938, and storm clouds hover once again over Europe. Josephine Tey and Archie Penrose gather with friends for a Cornish Christmas, but two strange and brutal deaths on St Michael’s Mount – and the unexpected arrival of a world famous film star, in need of sanctuary – interrupt the festivities. Cut off by the sea and a relentless blizzard, the hunt for a murderer begins.
Pivoting on a real moment in history, the ninth novel in the ‘Josephine Tey’ series draws on all the much-loved conventions of the Golden Age Christmas mystery, whilst giving them a thrilling contemporary twist.
About the Author
Nicola Upson was born in Suffolk and read English at Downing College, Cambridge. She has worked in theatre and as a freelance journalist, and is the author of two non-fiction works, as well as a novel about Stanley Spence, Stanley and Elsie. She has been a recipient of an Escalator Award from the Arts Council England.
Her debut novel, An Expert in Murder, was the first in a series of crime novels whose main character is Josephine Tey. The seventh Josephine Tey novel, Nine Lessons, was shortlisted for the CWA Historial Dagger in 2018 and the most recent novel in the series, Sorry for the Dead, was published in November 2019.
She lives with her partner in Cambridge and spends much of her time in Cornwall.