An Expert in Murder: have you ever wondered how authors do their research?

Debby Wale, our Tri-Borough Reference Librarian has been some detective work – over to Debby to explain more…..

Browsing the fiction shelves at Fulham Library  I came across Nicola Upson’s An Expert in Murder. It’s the first in a series based on writer Josephine Tey.

A wonderful period murder mystery which recruits real-life crime writer Josephine to investigate a slaying at the opening of her own West End play. Fans of Tey herself and Agatha Christie will relish this both for its authenticity and its gripping plot. Evening Standard 20 may 2009

Set in the 1934, Josephine Tey and her friend Inspector Archie Penrose sleuth their way through 30’s theatre land, with all the secret, lies and drama of the London stage. She features as a playwright rather than a novelist and the play is Tey’s Richard of Bordeaux. Tey wrote the play under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot.

I was about two thirds of the way through the book and I was shelving bound volumes of the Church of England Newspaper in the basement. I had a bit of nose round to see what other treasures lurked in the darkness and I found bound volumes of Theatre World from the 1930s. The covers were dusty and faded.

Theatre World at Fulham Library

Theatre World at Fulham Library

I pulled out the volume for January – December 1933 and came across… Richard of Bordeaux. The cover had a young Sir John Gielgud on the cover as Richard.

Theatre World, January-December 1933

Theatre World, January-December 1933

Inside was a series of stills of various scenes in the play. The story of The Play of the Moment and cast is included.

The Play of the Moment

The Play of the Moment

The illustration above depicts John Gielgud as the youthful Richard II and Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as his consort, Anne of Bohemia, as they appear in the opening scene of the play.
When I was in the Holy Land ....

When I was in the Holy Land ….

Each scene has the relevant line of the play – the caption for the picture bottom right reads: Derby (extreme right):

“When I was in the Holy Land once, we were in a very tight place”
What are you looking at me like that for Richard?

What are you looking at me like that for Richard?

Anne “What are you looking at me like that for Richard?” Richard “I was thinking that even if the heavens fell in, you would still be there.”

I was glad to find this before I finished the book, as I could see how the original production would have been. The same magazine could also have been used by Upson to research the novel.

From the Faber & Faber website, Upson tells us a little about her research methods:

Q. An Expert in Murder is very atmospheric. How much research about the period did you have to do?
An awful lot, and it’s a joy. My partner, Mandy, is a BBC arts journalist with a great passion for social history, and we do a lot of the background work for the novels together. It’s a really exciting part of the whole process and so much more turns up than we expect; both the plots to date have stemmed from things that really happened. Because I began work on the book in one form or another several years ago, I was lucky enough to be able to talk to many of the key people who shaped the West End in the 1930s and 1940s – people such as Sir John Gielgud and Margaret Harris, one of the design team ‘Motley’ – and their comments have helped give an authenticity to the character of Josephine Tey and to the feel of the period in general.

The characters in the novel are disguised – is the character John Terry based on Gielgud? Decide for yourselves from the evidence below.

From John Gielgud’s autobiography, Early Stages 1921-36. In the chapter covering 1932-33 Gieldgud begins:

The manuscript of Gordon Daviot’s Richard of Bordeaux, with it’s neat pages typed in blue, had lain in my dressing room for several days before I found time to look at it. I picked it up in one of my waits during a matinee of The Good Companions and began to read it through.

From the novel:

Although not yet thirty, John Terry was beginning to wonder if he had already enjoyed the greatest success of his career. He had known as soon as he opened  the manuscript of Richard of Bordeaux, with it’s neat pages carefully typed in blue ink, that he was looking at a gift from heaven. Reading in his dressing room during a matinee of the Good Companions, he had almost missed his cue…

From Early Stages:

The opening scene of the new play was light and charming, and the description of Richard’s appearance attracted me at once – I thought that perhaps the author had seen me in the part at the Vic.

(By the way – it turned out later she had!)

In the novel, Penrose and Tey together see John Terry in the Shakespeare version of the play at the Old Vic.

From the novel:

It was five years ago now, but he remembered it vividly because the production’s brief run had coincided with one of Josephine’s then rare visits to London.

On Upson’s web page  she says:

An Expert in Murder is a blend of fact and fiction, set in London in 1934 – just as the first major success of MacKintosh’s professional life was drawing to a close. Richard of Bordeaux, the play which – as Daviot – she wrote for John Gielgud after seeing him at the Old Vic, was the toast of the West End for over a year. It ran for 463 performances at the New Theatre – now the Noel Coward Theatre – in St Martin’s Lane, took more than £100,000 at the box office, and acquired the popularity of a blockbuster movie: people went 30 or 40 times to see it; commemorative portrait dolls were produced; and it transformed Gielgud from a brilliant young actor into a commercial star overnight.

I have just started to read Nicola Upson’s Fear in the Sunlight. This one is based on Alfred Hitchcock and the setting is Portmeirion. Having looked at Nicola Upson’s web page again  – Hitchcock’s film Young and Innocent was based on Josephine Tey’s 1936 crime novel, A Shilling for Candles, and was released in Britain in December 1937.

Starring Derrick de Marney as a young man wrongly accused of murdering a famous actress, and Nova Pilbeam in her first adult role. I will pop off to the basement again. There’s a biography of Hitch (Alfred Hitchcock, The Dark Side of Genius) by Donald Spoto waiting for me.

Before I go looking for it, I’ll list the resources available via your local Hammersmith and Fulham Library:

  • Nicola Upson Expert in Murder
  • Nicola Upson Fear in the Sunlight
  • John Gielgud Early Stages
  •  Theatre World 1931-1964
Debby Wale

Debby Wale

Debby Wale, Tri-Borough Reference Librarian

Fulham Reference Library

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