Review: Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson
Called to the peaceful wooded churchyard of St-John’s-at-Hampstead, Detective Chief Inspector Archie Penrose faces one of the most audacious and unusual murders of his career. The body of the church’s organist is found in an opened grave, together with a photograph of a manor house and a cryptic note. The image leads Archie to Cambridge, where the crisp autumn air has brought with it bustling life to the ancient university and town.
Both Josephine Tey and Archie’s lover Bridget have recently settled in Cambridge, though both women are not equally happy to see him. One has concealed an important secret from Archie which now threatens to come to light. Meanwhile, the change of seasons has also brought with it a series of vicious attacks against women in town, spreading fear and suspicion through the community.
Soon, another body is revealed, and in the shadow of King’s College Chapel, Archie uncovers a connection twenty-five years old which haunted both victims—as well as some of their living companions. As Archie and Josephine each grapple with savage malefactors intent on making their victims pay, they must race to stop another attack in this beautifully written, intricately plotted mystery.
Curling up with a compelling, detailed and surprising historical mystery is one of my great reading pleasures, so imagine my delight to have been introduced to a new, terrifically written historical mystery series! Nicola Upson’s well-reviewed Nine Lessons is the seventh entry in the critically acclaimed Josephine Tey Mystery 1930s-set series, though the first one I have had the pleasure of reading. Beautifully, elegantly written with a subtle darker edge at its core and rounded out by terrific, engrossing characters, I found Nine Lessons to be quite a standout historical mystery title.
Nine Lessons begins in a churchyard with the discovery of a body in an open grave. Detective Chief Inspector Archie Penrose, as readers can surmise, has seen his fair share of crime scenes and death; but this, the finding of the church organist’s body is something…different. Penrose, with the aid of his police colleagues, finds out almost incomprehensibly disturbing details about how the deceased, former Cambridge student Dr. Stephen Laxborough, might have been killed. As Penrose begins piecing together strange and frustratingly vague clues left on the deceased person, more murders- all linked, somehow, to Dr. Laxborough and a group of Cambridge classmates- occur. While Penrose focuses most of his time and attention on the Laxborough murder and connected crimes in and around Cambridge, a string of heinous, violent sexual crimes against women are happening in the same city. As the two crime threads intersect at intervals, readers are introduced (or re-introduced) to Penrose’s friend, mystery author and amateur sleuth Josephine Tey (a character Upson has based on the highly-regarded Scottish author). As Tey finds herself exploring in both crime threads to aid Penrose and women in the Cambridge area, readers are proffered glimpses into Tey and Penrose’s somewhat delicate history and how they have come to be with their current romantic partners. How the crime threads are investigated and culminate is pretty terrific- meticulously plotted and presented. Moreover, there is another related piece to Nine Lessons that I want to bring up: just how much substance and critical weight to the subject matter Upson covers in Nine Lessons. Everything from police and public response to sexual assault, victim (female) blaming and shaming after rape, historical and public conceptions and intolerance regarding same-sex partnerships, and more. You might be wondering, with such an incredible scope, just how does everything tie together and wrap itself up by the end of 300 pages? Lest you worry, I can say that Upson does a superb job with making Nine Lessons read cohesively- never overwhelming or burdening the reader.
Overall, an excellent, complicated mystery that leaves the reader satisfied: polished, interesting and compelling from start to finish with tremendous depth. I was so intrigued by the main characters of Archie and Josephine- and their clearly complex history- during my reading, that I have now made it a goal to go back and read the series from the beginning. While I don’t think any curious readers diving into the series at this entry point will have any issues following along, my interest has definitely been piqued and I am aiming to go back and gain more insight into Archie and Josephine’s separate and joint histories. For any readers who adore this sub-genre of mystery/suspense, I highly recommend this title and series; if you’re not yet convinced, Nine Lessons has made Publisher’s Weekly Best Books of 2017 in the mystery/thriller category!
I received a copy of this title courtesy of Crooked Lane Books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.