Dear Little Corpses by Nicola Upson

Books

Dear Little Corpses is the 10th book in Nicola Upson’s atmospheric series featuring Golden Age crime author Josephine Tey flexing her little grey cells as an amateur sleuth. While the nearest the real-life Josephine seemingly came to fighting crime was retrospectively investigating the role of Richard III in the infamous disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, as chronicled in The Daughter of Time, the fictional Josephine stumbles across a death at nearly every turn, which is definitely in keeping with the murder rate portrayed in many Golden Age novels.

As her latest criminological adventure begins, it’s 31 August 1939 and, while the rest of the country prepares for war, Josephine is concentrating on spending a few quiet days at her cottage in the Suffolk village of Polstead with lover Marta Fox before the actress has to depart for Hollywood and the opportunity to work on a film with Alfred Hitchcock. She’s not able to fully escape the chaos caused by the upcoming conflict, however, as she and Marta are roped into helping Hilary Lampton, the local vicar’s wife, organise a cohort of children who have been evacuated from London to the apparent safety of the countryside.

The children’s arrival is fraught and, as far more turn up than were expected, Josephine and Marta agree to temporarily house a young boy named Noah, while his five-year-old sister Betty is sent to stay with the eccentric Herron siblings – elderly sisters Lillian and Florrie and their cosseted brother Edmund – at the stately Black Bryony. Although the majority of the villagers sincerely want to help the evacuees, some are definitely after cheap farm labour, whereas others have something of a shopping list when it comes to who they are willing to accept into their homes. Upson does a sterling job of elucidating the trauma of the experience for both the children and the parents they have to leave behind.

As the children begin to settle in, attention in Polstead turns to the annual village fete, which is another thing that Josephine finds herself coerced into helping with. In this case, she’s to be responsible for judging the various baking and prize vegetable competitions. She has to pass up that honour though when word gets around that a local girl, five-year-old Annie Ridley, has gone missing, having last been seen sometime the preceding evening heading to her grandmother’s house due to her parents being preoccupied with making arrangements for their evacuees. A cloud of deep concern and suspicion quickly descends and the villagers break away from the fete to search for the missing girl.

Fortuitously, Josephine’s pet policeman, DCI Archie Penrose, is taking a break from solving crimes in the capital and visiting Polstead for the day with his new lady friend and her children. Theirs is an extremely complicated relationship, what with Archie being responsible for the arrest and, therefore, the execution of her first husband, so it’s good to see them out and about for the day like a regular family, even if the outing is interrupted by news of the disappearance. Due to his considerable experience with Scotland Yard, Archie takes charge of the investigation for the local police and begins to make enquiries into both Annie’s possible location and the whereabouts of the village’s more dodgy characters.

Of course, despite her best intentions, Josephine also gets drawn into the case and this time round, she gets a little help from another doyen of crime fiction: Margery Allingham, author of the Albert Campion novels, who lives in a village near Polstead and was accidently also invited to judge at the fete. There’s a wonderful bit of banter back and forth between the two as to who will be the first to feature a village fete in one of their novels – A Fete Worse Than Death, perhaps? – and some amusing shade gets thrown at fellow local author Dorothy L Sayers too. If only Agatha Christie had turned up as well, there would have been a true Golden Age crime fiction dream team in Polstead and the case would have been over before it even began.

As it happens, Margery Allingham has far more local knowledge than Josephine, including a familiarity with the peculiar Herron family, which proves helpful in cracking the mystery behind Annie’s disappearance. Aside from being in the right place at the right time on one key occasion, Josephine actually acts as more of an observer during the events of Dear Little Corpses, rather than as a supersleuth hot on the trail of the villain. This sense of detachment highlights her outsider status, but also reflects the otherworldly and surreal atmosphere that often descends when a crime occurs in a small community. She does still get the chance to demonstrate her astounding understanding of human nature and her compulsion to fight for the underdog though.

In Dear Little Corpses, Upson blends fact with fiction in a masterful way, crafting a troubling plot that envelops the characters – both those based on real people and those who are wholly fictional – in a darkness that somehow manages to exceed that associated with the forthcoming war. It all makes for a powerful story that delivers an emotional punch to the gut on several occasions as Josephine, Marta and Archie attempt to find the truth as the serene façade of Polstead crumbles and the wider world starts to disintegrate.

If Dear Little Corpses has whet your appetite for Nicola Upson’s Josephine Tey series, be sure to check out The Dead of Winter and Sorry for the Dead.

Faber & Faber
Print/Kindle
£11.99

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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