Friday, 7 June 2013

One Thing Leads To Another

I am rather partial to a whodunnit and I always like the ones who cast a real person as the amateur detective. Stephanie Barron has Jane Austen doing a Regency era Miss Marple; Jane Laurence gets Canaletto to combine painting with sleuthing. Elliott Roosevelt sets his mysteries in the Roosevelt White House with First Lady Eleanor (the author's mother in real life) doing
the sleuthing. In Karen Harper's delightful historical detective stories, the first Queen Elizabeth solves the mysteries, and I have even read a short story by Peter Lovesey where Princess Diana and Sarah Ferguson team up to solve the mystery of Glamis Castle. Groucho Marx, Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, Bette Davis … any number of real characters have done some fictional sleuthing!

So I was delighted when a friend recommended Nicola Upson, whose  detective novels set in the 1930s feature Josephine Tey as the amateur sleuth. The first one I read, was Fear in the Sunlight: Miss Tey finds herself in the picturesque Welsh coastal village of Portmeirion, among a bunch of Hollywood stars, film crew and assorted celebrities. Among the hotel guests are Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma, who make Miss Tey an offer for the film rights to her book A Shilling for Candles.

Two rather gruesome murders are committed and after some suitably Hitchcockian twists and turns of the plot, elegantly solved. Miss Tey sells A Shilling for Candles to Hitchcock despite her misgivings that her book will be butchered by the Hollywood scriptwriters. In an epilogue Josephine tells a friend that Hitchcock based his film Young and Innocent on it. And yes, as she suspected, the plot and characters took a battering.

I enjoyed Fear in the Sunlight, and it led to my looking up the fascinating history of Portmeirion, which didn't just grow like other villages: it was designed in 1925 and built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis in the style of an Italian village. It is now owned by a charitable trust. In the 20s and 30s it was a very fashionable resort, patronised by the Bright Young Things and by celebrities who had actually accomplished something for which to be celebrated. Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit there.
I also rummaged among my old books to find the yellowing copy of A Shilling for Candles, in which I was  amused to see my name on the flyleaf in a schoolgirly hand. How embarrassing - I used purple ink in my fountain pen. Oh, well, I was a teenager and heavily into Marie Corelli at the time. A Shilling for Candles is still an intriguing mystery, if a bit dated … everybody smokes and wears hats!

After reading that, I had to get the DVD of Young and Innocent out of the library, just to see how Alfred Hitchcock sliced and diced the book. Vintage early Hitchcock … his hallmark plot of innocent man on the run with his girlfriend, while trying to discover the real criminal. Sound familiar? Yes, we've all seen The 39 Steps, North by Northwest and The Wrong Man! This one is a bit of an underrated gem, and worth a look. Lots of suspense and a few splendidly Hitchcockian sequences, like an elaborate crane shot near the end, quite groundbreaking for its time. I nearly missed the Hitchcock cameo, but spotted him after all, standing outside the courthouse with a camera.
Josephine Tey
Now that I have exhausted all the side tracks that Fear in the Sunlight led to, I'm ready for my next Nicola Upson!