Mystery Books for Sale

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by Nicola Upson
Bourbon Street Books, April 2013
432 pages
ISBN: 0062195433

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Creating a fictional narrative around very real historical figures, especially those from the relatively recent past, can be a rather tricky proposition for authors - especially in crime fiction, where these characters are embroiled in fictional murder investigations. For each of these projects that succeed, there are several more that are either too convoluted, hew too closely (or too loosely) to their historical counterparts' biography, or manage to fail for a variety of other reasons; unfortunately FEAR IN THE SUNLIGHT falls squarely into the failure category.

It's 1936, and Alfred Hitchcock and wife Alma, with one eye on moving to Hollywood, are quite eager to convince legendary mystery writer Josephine Tey to collaborate with them on his pending adaptation of her novel "A Shilling for Candles" while also playing tricks and mind games with an eclectic mix of on-screen talent as well as conflicted, and frankly shady behind the scenes hired hands, all of whom appear to have a dark past that they would rather not confront.

In addition to dark secrets that may prove relevant to the necessary murder and resulting investigation; a detailed, overwrought, and repetitive exploration of personal issues each character is facing is included and as a result Upson spends nearly two hundred pages of exposition in order to set the scene and give each character a proper backstory before coming to a brutal double murder and another one-hundred pages before the bodies are even found.

Masters of the genre such as Elizabeth George and P. D. James can get away with such a deliberate pace because they are able to create detailed, yet relevant and interesting characters and locations that enthrall even readers who generally abhor crime fiction. But Upson's characters are as boring as they are numerous, and these characters tend to run together to the point of maddening confusion; and the labored discussion of the various ailments in each of their personal and romantic lives is both tedious and whiny.

You may notice that I have yet to mention the two beloved historical figures whose names grace the cover of FEAR IN THE SUNLIGHT, Josephine Tey and Alfred Hitchcock. Primarily they serve as stock characters - yes, Tey's tortured creative and personal lives are detailed and Hitchcock's boyish trickery on the set and unique collaboration with Alma Reville are given lip service, but they are secondary and virtually bystanders to the proceedings at hand. The mystery itself has promise and likely could produce an entertaining novel - but it's not clear that including two legendary artists who are only marginally involved in the plot and spending nearly three-fourths of an overlong narrative on backstory is an optimal avenue to write a crime novel about a double murder on a film set.

In short, FEAR IN THE SUNLIGHT is a book with potential, but does not seem to know what to do with that potential. Overlong, with more characters than it can merit, and name-dropping two major figures in the fields of literature and film, neither of whom provide insight or amusement from their presence, it is a notable disappointment. Fans of the two principals would be better suited revisiting the canon of both; and fans of detailed, deliberate crime novels should visit the work of James and George.

Ben Neal is a public librarian in northeastern Tennessee and likes to fancy himself an amateur writer, humorist, detective, and coffee connoisseur in his spare time. He can be reached at beneneal@indiana.edu.

Reviewed by Ben Neal, June 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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