Words by Hannah Tapping
Imaginary misdemeanours inspired by Cornish settings; author Nicola Upson re-captures the Golden Age of crime writing.
Happenstance couldn’t be more of a suitable word in summing up the beginning of Nicola Upson’s crime fiction writing career. It all began at her home in Cambridge, with a copy of a catalogue of National Trust cottages and a search for a holiday. Nicola and her partner Mandy Morton were looking for a week away and having both holidayed in Cornwall in their younger days decided upon Whitstone Cottage, a pretty thatched property on the edge of the Penrose Estate, just outside Porthleven. “We just fell in love with the village. We loved the restaurants and we loved the beach. To this day, there is nowhere we would rather be than sitting on Blue Buoy steps,” says Nicola. Such was the draw of the area that they returned the following year to stay at Helston Lodge, a former gate house on the edge of Loe Pool, in the heart of Penrose Estate.
©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey
The idea for Nicola’s series of crime novels, which star real-life mystery writer Josephine Tey as an amateur sleuth, started at Helston Lodge: “At the time I was trying to write a biography of Josephine Tey and I was coming up against a lot of brick walls. She was a very private person and there just wasn’t enough information to write a full objective biography. We had had a couple of glasses of wine one evening and Mandy said to me ‘Oh, for God’s sake just make it up!’ and that’s how it began.”
The tale continues during Nicola and Mandy’s stay at Helston Lodge. “Being November, the weather wasn’t great and so for something to do on a wet afternoon we went to the estate agents in Porthleven and ended up putting our name down on their mailing list. One day, a few weeks later, a photocopied set of particulars came through the door.” It was for a Grade II listed thatched cottage in the very heart of the village that had once been part of the Penrose Estate. “We instantly fell in love with it and felt it was meant to be and so called and offered the asking price without even seeing it. We couldn’t afford it, it was really rather ridiculous.”
Some 20 years ago estate agents wouldn’t accept offers without viewings and so on a dark February night Mandy drove to Cornwall, arriving in the early hours of the morning with snow on the bonnet. A viewing the next day confirmed what they already knew and the cottage was theirs. I find that it’s the very cottage I have always envied on my walks through Porthleven – always a lamp on in the window and a laptop on the coffee table, a writer’s haven.
Nicola and Mandy now try to divide their time equally between Cambridge and Cornwall and the cottage is a place where they both write: “There’s something about the freedom, the energy and the peace there that suits us very well.” Fitting then, that Nicola’s detective Archie Penrose is named in honour of the estate and that the second book in her series, Angel With Two Faces, is set largely In Penrose and Porthleven.
Having read English at Downing College, Cambridge, Nicola spent some time as a freelance arts journalist, starting a magazine dedicated to women’s arts, writing and literature before becoming Head of Marketing at Cambridge Arts Theatre. I’m intrigued as to why the interest in Josephine Tey and Nicola explains that it this was the theatre in a way that created it: “The Cambridge Arts Theatre goes back to 1936. Founded by the economist Maynard Keynes it was built not only to give the town that he loved a theatre, but also as a stage where his wife, the ballet dancer Lydia Lopokova, could act and dance. I think that’s just the most romantic thing and it’s the romance of the theatre and the West End during that period that was really resonant with me when I started to write these books. I suppose that’s what drew me to Josephine Tey.”
“During her lifetime Tey was just as famous as a playwrite as she was a crime writer and of particular interest to me was a play she wrote called Richard of Bordeaux, which was subsequently directed by and starred John Gielgud. He was already a well-respected classical actor, but it was this play that turned Gielgud into a celebrity overnight.”
“I was lucky enough to start researching my books when Gielgud was still alive and I even got to speak to him on the phone. I wrote to him to ask if he would help me, not expecting a reply, as at the time of Tey’s death many of her friends had refused to cooperate with any attempt to write a biography. But one day, I got back to my flat in Cambridge and my flatmate said “John Gielgud’s called, you’ve just missed him!” Fortunately he phoned back and we had two, afternoon-length conversations about Tey and what he remembered of her and their friendship. He also told me so much about the theatre of the 1930s and 40s that I was able to feed it into the books. It’s a lovely backdrop to have.”
Nicola had already written a number of non-fiction titles but her first foray into fiction was something of a terrifying prospect. “There were gaps in Tey’s life that no-one knew about; she was quite a contrary and contradictory person – in a good way – but it left much intrigue. So, she actually suited the fictional approach perfectly. Sitting down to write those early chapters was hard, especially writing dialogue and making people sound as though they were actually talking to each other.”
“The first couple of books in the series were much more rigorously plotted at the beginning than they are now. I needed that structure – I needed to know where I was going. Now, I’m much more comfortable to be quite a long way through the book before I know how the ends are going to tie up. That’s fine because I now have the experience to just keep faith with it and that it will be alright in the end.”
Nicola attributes her early successful transition from non-fiction to fiction down to Escalator, a scheme run by the Arts Council and the National Centre for Writing that helps writers who are at a turning point or a crossroads in their career. “It was good to have the endorsement of that and also both Mandy and I had incidentally come to know PD James through our respective careers. Mandy had produced her radio biography for Radio 2 and I had been to see her to her to talk about Tey as she was a huge fan. She was very supportive of me and was fantastic through the writing of my first novel. Right up until her death she loved the books; she took a great and active interest in them. To talk things through with someone who had such a brilliant mind and wicked sense of humour, and who was so wise and so generous, was just brilliant. I can’t over-estimate how valuable that was.”
Nicola admits to finding the first third of any book the hardest: “It’s like walking into a room of strange people and having to get to know them quite quickly. There are always so many things you want to include when a book first starts but it’s better to drop a few of those and let the book breathe a bit more – ironically the books get a richness, a texture and a depth when you pack less into them.”
I ask Nicola about her characters, eager to know if she already has her cast in mind at the start. “I have a fair idea of who the cast will be when I begin but they develop in different ways. Their function in the book can change. Sometimes they die sooner than expected and sometimes they die when I was convinced that they were going to live. They do quite literally take on a life of their own! Angel with Two Faces was a particularly lovely book to write in terms of character as I had lots of help with research from interviewing some of the more elderly people in the village of Porthleven. To have that real richness of experience and know for sure what the village was like in the 1930s from the memories of their parents and grandparents was invaluable.”
Escalator was also invaluable when it came to Nicola securing her first publishing contract. Through the scheme she was promoted to the industry: “My agent did the actual submission process. There were some rejections along the way but I was always secretly hoping for Faber & Faber. As a publishing house it has a beautiful tradition of crime writing with PD James and Cyril Hare to name just a few from its long history.”
It was actually Phyllis (PD James) herself who called to tell Nicola the news: “You’re getting an offer from Faber dear,” she said, to which Nicola replied that she was sure they were still considering her manuscript. Phyllis was firm in her response: “No dear, you are getting an offer from Faber!’ I can think of no better way to hear about winning a publishing contract.
Nicola’s novels take about a year to research and write, accumulating a plethora of notes and photographs: “A sense of place is really important in the books so that’s the single most important piece of research. I write on Leonard, my laptop named in honour of Leonard Woolf, and all of my books have been written on it. I’m incredibly superstitious about it. It’s not connected to the modern world, I use it more as a glorified typewriter. If I’m going to have a good day writing I also need to ditch the phone – it’s too intrusive. I write listening to music that suits the tone of the content. As The Dead of Winter is set on St Michaels’ Mount and its incredible church, choral music and Gregorian chants became its soundtrack. The book I’m writing at the moment is set in Suffolk, on the cusp of World War II breaking out, and so I’m currently listening to June Tabor and Pentagle – music that evokes Old England.”
It’s been a strange year for everyone and Nicola and Mandy haven’t been able to spend as much time in their Cornish home as they would have liked, but it’s not stopped them being creative. Mandy started and finished a novel in lockdown, while Nicola tells me she was not quite so disciplined but has continued to write apace. I look forward to seeing the lights on in the cottage and Leonard on the coffee table once again.
The Dead of Winter is published by Faber & Faber (Hardback, November 5th 2020, £12.99).