Q & A
Angel with Two Faces is the second in Nicola Upson’s clever
and enthralling crime series - the first book, An Expert in
Murder, was dramatized for BBC Radio 4 in April 2008. The Cornish
landscape and its people, the very real crime writer Josephine Tey, and the
theatre world of 1930s Britain all feature prominently in her books, as Nicola
What made you set the novel in Cornwall?
Because this particular part of Cornwall - the Loe Pool and Penrose Estate,
just outside Porthleven - is a place I know well and love. About ten years ago,
my partner and I hired a National Trust cottage on the Penrose Estate and it was
there that the idea for the series was born; we went back a few times and became
so attached to it that we bought a cottage in Porthleven and spend much of our
time there. It was a rash decision at the time, but it’s proved to be one of the
best things we ever did because it’s a peaceful place to write and a wonderful
Loe Bar, which is a stretch of sand that separates the sea from a lake, is
one of the most beautiful places I know - and the contrast of that beauty with
the power of the sea and the harshness of life in Cornwall at that time was an
irresistible place to start.
The other reason, though, is the people we've met since we've been there -
they've made us so welcome; many of our closest friends are there, and we love
being part of that community. A lot of people from Porthleven have helped with
the research for the book by sharing their own memories and stories: even before
the plot came together, I knew I wanted to open the book with a funeral and so
my partner and I went to see a man in the village whose family has been in
undertaking for decades, and he and his wife told us an afternoon‘s worth of
stories which set the tone for the book.
It sounds strange, but my sense of everyday life in Cornwall in the 1930s
grew almost entirely from the attitudes to death - a great respect and strength
which nevertheless existed alongside humour and a remarkable practicality, which
all seems a far cry from today, where the undertakers at the bottom of my road
call themselves memorial consultants. The themes of the book - love and secrets,
and a slow unravelling of both - came from talking to many of the older
Porthleveners about life when they were young, and it’s a tribute to that past
community which nevertheless looks at the darker side of family life. One of the
joys of writing Angel with Two Faces was to keep that past very
Did Josephine Tey ever visit Cornwall?
To my knowledge, no - I'm afraid that's pure indulgence on my part. I knew
I'd want to write about Cornwall, which is why I made my detective, Archie
Penrose, Cornish and gave him the name of a place I love - and there's no doubt
that the series will take him back to his roots again at some point.
A Shilling for Candles, Tey’s second mystery novel which we
see her beginning to write in Angel with Two Faces, was
actually set in the south-east of England rather than the south-west; she worked
there as a young woman, and loved that part of England.
du Maurier gets a mention in the book too, are you a fan of her work? Are you
aware of any relationship or rivalry between Tey and du Maurier?
I love du Maurier’s work - she's a wonderful, powerful storyteller and,
whenever I go back to books like Jamaica Inn or
Rebecca, I'm always struck by how dark and violent they are; it
gives them an edge which makes them stay with you long after you finish the
She and Tey had mutual friends in the theatre, and they shared a publisher
and an agent but, as far as I know, they didn't know each other personally,
although, from what I know of Tey, I think she would have enjoyed and admired du
Maurier’s writing. However, I think the thing which would really have united
them was Hitchcock's treatment of their early work in the films Jamaica
Inn and Young and Innocent (Hitchcock's version of
A Shilling for Candles); neither were what you might call
faithful to the original, and I think an imaginary conversation between them
along those lines may well appear in a future book.
What do you
think makes Cornwall such a special place to write about, particularly for crime
Where do you start?! It’s a place of great beauty and contrasts; a place
where a sense of community is still very much alive, and that's vital when
you're writing the sort of book that revolves around strong characters and the
impact they have on each other's lives (and deaths); and a place where legends
and tall tales have a part in everyday life, even to this day - the plot of
Angel revolves entirely around a legend that the Loe Pool on
the Penrose Estate is supposed to take a life every seven years.
It's also a special place to read about, and I think that’s partly because of
the genuine love of the place which comes across so strongly in writers like du
Maurier and, these days, Patrick Gale, who’s one of my favourite contemporary
The Minack Theatre features in the book, too.
Yes. The books all have a theatre link, because it’s a passion of mine and a
lifelong connection for Tey, which gave her some of her closest friends. I don’t
think anyone who’s ever been to the Minack could imagine a more dramatic setting
- an open-air theatre quite literally carved from the rock, where the action on
stage has to compete with a backdrop of rugged Cornish coast, basking sharks in
the bay and - more often than not - a beautiful moonlit night. Part of the
attraction for me, though, was that the Minack was created by one woman, Rowena
Cade, who owned the cliff and built the theatre herself with the help of two
gardeners. It opened in 1932, and they used to light the stage with car
That, to me, is what theatre’s all about and one of the aims of the series is
to pay tribute to people with that sort of spirit. The Motley sisters - who are
based on a real-life design team who took the West End by storm - typify it
perfectly. The play that I’ve put into the book is 'The Jackdaw of Rheims',
which was the play actually staged at the Minack in 1935 - although fortunately
without the dramatic death which occurs in my production.
used to run the Motley and Co bookshop in Porthleven. What made you call the
My partner and I started the shop with a friend of ours who made textiles,
and the stocking of it was very much done on the Motley philosophy of creating
something interesting on a budget! The make do and mend attitude was alive and
kicking on the shelves. And there was a social element to it, too, which is
something the Motleys would have approved of: in the 1930s, they spent £200 a
year on tea and cakes alone to entertain their theatre friends at their studios
in St Martin's Lane, and the shop in Porthleven was designed to be somewhere
that people could drop in and have a chat. The Christmas parties were legendary!
And when we closed, someone told us that the heart of the village was gone - I'm
very proud that we created something which was that important to people, even
though it only lasted four years, and much of Angel with Two
Faces and An Expert in Murder was written waiting for
a customer to come in!
The Penrose Estate is a National Trust
property, don't the National Trust play a part in Tey's will/estate?
Yes: she left all her estate and the income from her books to the National
Trust for England, not Scotland, which caused a lot of resentment in her home
town of Inverness. There’s an indication of its importance to her in A
Shilling for Candles, when the murder victim - an actress - leaves her
wealth ‘for the preservation of the beauty of England’.
(Via the Faber website)
The second in Nicola Upson's clever and enthralling crime series featuring Josephine Tey, the Golden Age crime writer.
Cleverly blending fact and fiction, An Expert in Murder is both a tribute to one of the most enduringly popular writers of crime and an atmospheric detective novel in its own right.