Angel with Two Faces by Nicola Upson

6 September, 2010

I’m a big fan of Josephine Tey’s mysteries and jumped at the chance of reading Nicola Upson’s novel featuring Tey as a fictional detective in her first outing, An Expert in Murder. I’ve long been a fan of historical fiction, and when that genre became popular in the late 80s, medieval mysteries were all the rage. I gobbled them all up, from Ellis Peters to P.C. Doherty, Candace Robb and Susanna Gregory to name a handful. You can find my list of favourite historical mysteries here. Now, twenty years later, the early twentieth century and the interwar years, my other favourite period in history, seems to be all the rage. I enjoyed Upson’s first novel and enjoyed her second, Angel with Two Faces too.

Like Tey’s novels, there is an undercurrent of darkness and claustrophobia that permeates the story. It did take me a while to get into this book, but once I did, I enjoyed it tremendously. The pace was fast, the secrets were thick and I liked the characters Upson drew in the tale, especially Josephine and her friend, Inspector Archie Penrose.

In Angel with Two Faces, Archie has returned to his childhood home in Cornwall for a holiday to be followed by Josephine. After many estranged years apart, the two have resumed their friendship, complicated by the Great War and the loss of Josephine’s fiancée and Archie’s best friend. But this holiday is marred by the death of Archie’s childhood friend Harry Pinching, found drowned in the lake. Harry’s death exposes the crack in the idyllic Cornish life, and soon Archie and Josephine find themselves embroiled in secrets and lies that can no longer stay hidden. When the village curate, one of Harry’s closest friends, is killed, they must find out what happened to Harry in order to find the killer.

Although set in the interwar years, this novel read more like a modern thriller. The secrets and shocks came thick and fast and the pace kept up until the end. I really liked the melancholy and darkness in the novel, but felt that maybe there were too many shocking truths that were unearthed in too short a novel.

One of the things I liked about Upson’s series is the relationship between Josephine and Archie. Archie has been in love with her since they first met before the Great War, and Josephine is aware of it. But the ghost of her lover and his friend is still with them, and although both have moved on, they are unable to go beyond maintaining their fragile friendship. We’ll see what happens. In a way, Upson doesn’t get too bogged down with her research and the minutiae of interwar life; there is just enough to give a sense of period which doesn’t take away from the plot.

I know there have been some mixed reviews of this book, but I enjoyed it and look forward to the next in the series, Two for Sorrow. And can I just say how beautiful the cover art is?

I read this as part of the Thriller and Suspense Challenge 2010.

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6 Responses to “Angel with Two Faces by Nicola Upson”

  1. Fëanor Says:

    I’m a bit baffled by the necessity to use real people as fictional characters, particularly in the guise of detectives. Is the character depicted true to the personality of the original? How can one be sure this is so? If not, why use a real person? I’ve seen as unlikely people as Longfellow, Dickens, and Dante being shoehorned into detective roles. Newton, even! (Well, at least as Master of the Mint, he conducted investigations against counterfeiters with incredible venom and efficiency.) Is it a marketing gimmick? What do you think?

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Hello! I actually don’t mind real people as fictional characters. But I do expect a bit of research to have gone into it. Nothing worse than a character doing something totally out of character^^ I think it’s more difficult if there is a lot of information about that person available. Take Newton. There’s so much scholarship on him (he’s an industry unto himself) but not many people know about his interest in alchemy. That would make a good story. Of course I think a large part of it is marketing (it seems to be quite a trend now) and there are some dire stuff out there, but if well done, I think it’s both informative and entertaining. If you read and like someone’s work, it’s natural to want to know more about them, no? Btw, I’ve heard about Newton and the Counterfeiters. Was it good?

      • Fëanor Says:

        Ok, take your example of Newton the alchemist. Imagine now that someone has written up a Da Vinci Code-like thing of world domination in which Newton finds himself in possession of some puzzle that only he can unravel (alchemically, that too) and he then darts about solving this and that, and schmoozing with the underclass and narrowly escaping from death. Isn’t it taking liberties with the character? That’s the sort of thing I find with most real-people-converted-to-detectives sort of fiction. And maybe in truly exceptional novels we might learn a thing or two about the real person’s personality and ability. But I can never forget that this discovery is always through the prism of the author’s own imagination, and so has no more bearing on the real personality than any fanciful imaginings I come up with. Knowmsayin’?

        • chasing bawa Says:

          I do. Of course it will have to be within the context of that person’s character, history and period otherwise it will make uncomfortable reading (for anyone who likes or has studied history). But I find that as long as it adhere’s to my vision of that person (after having read around etc) I’m ok with it. On the other hand, if the author gets a minor historical detail wrong, that wouldn’t bother me too much as long as the story’s good. In the end it’s fiction, right? And not a history book. And that would mean that what we read would be a subjective take on that person. I know that there are many historical fiction authors and readers who get het up with errors etc, but unless it’s glaringly obvious, does it matter too much if the story and characters feel real? I think that by using a real person, you can instantly transport the reader to that particular historical period. Whether you make the character believable or not is the difficult bit.

          I have a historical mystery featuring Leonardo da Vinci and another with Lucrezia Borgia. They should make some interesting reading.

  2. amymckie Says:

    Sounds like a good book. I haven’t read many mysteries or many books set in that time period. Sounds wonderful though.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      I used to be more interested in medieval, rennaisance and the Tudor & Stuart periods and wasn’t happy about studying the two world wars at school. But I find it more interesting as I grow older because it’s when the world changed into a place we now recognise.


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