In the afterword to her penultimate novel, The Privateer, Josephine Tey declared that ‘to write fiction about historical fact is very nearly impermissible’. I’m grateful to her for the caveat, because following Tey’s life through a series of fictional mysteries is a challenge which becomes more fascinating with each new book. In the course of every story, there’s a time when fact and fiction blur, even for me. Last year, en route to Tey’s hometown of Inverness, I was looking out of the window, thinking about how dramatic she must have found the contrast in landscapes as she regularly made the journey from Scotland to the cottage she had inherited in the Suffolk countryside – then I remembered I’d made that bit up.
Josephine Tey is one of many real people who’ve wandered into this series: she’s shared the page with Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville; Mary Size, pioneering Deputy Governor of Holloway; notorious babyfarmers Amelia Sach and Annie Walters; and melodrama star Tod Slaughter. Researching those stories and bringing often neglected people to life as characters is one of my favourite aspects of writing, but the hardest person to capture remains Josephine herself – partly because the real woman was so complex and partly because the character matters so much to me. I wanted The Death of Lucy Kyte to be Josephine’s novel; unlike the rest of the series, it’s told entirely from her point of view, and the unravelling of the mystery at its heart is down to her. She spends a lot of time on her own in the book, often faced with difficult memories or current concerns that she can no longer hide from, and she knows herself much better by the time it’s finished; I hope the reader knows her better, too.
People love to know what’s real and what isn’t, and the question I’m asked most often is about her deepening relationship with another character, Marta Fox. It began in Two for Sorrow, because I wanted to write a love story. That book is dark; it contains a harrowing act of violence against a young woman, and I wanted to counteract that with another sort of physicality, with a real love and tenderness. Crime novels should depict violence realistically, but for once I wanted one person to reach out to another with no thought of power or violence or hate. It was a significant moment in the development of Josephine as a character, demonstrating both her vulnerability and Marta’s, and their ongoing story is as important to me as any of the individual plotlines within the series. The way that readers have warmed to them, and seem as concerned about their future as I am, is very satisfying.
The relationship is fictional, but Marta is a composite of several women to whom the real Tey was close during her lifetime – as was Tey’s character, Marta Hallard, who appears in several of her novels. Many sources have combined to leave me in no doubt that Tey’s intimacies – certainly in the period of her life which I’m writing about – were with women: conversations I had with Sir John Gielgud, who knew her well; interviews with many other friends, some from the theatre, some who knew her from her childhood to her death; and letters I’ve collected over the years from colleagues or fellow members of her private club. I know of at least three people who are working on factual accounts of her life, some with input from Tey’s relatives, and they have a different view, but there’s nothing strange in that: very few people tell their family the same things that they tell their friends, even today – and discretion mattered far more in the 1930s. I love her contradictions – they make her human. And in the 21st century, when historians have given us such an insight into women’s lives between the wars, we no longer have to make excuses for that.
The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson is out now in paperback, £7.99 (Faber & Faber)