Dear Little Corpses
reviewed by Carolyn Scott
This popular series is based on the imagined life of respected Scottish playwright and novelist Josephine Tey whose popular mystery series, published from 1929 to 1952, featured the much-loved Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard. Tey was a very private person and little is known about her personal life, so Nicola Upson has imagined her as an amateur sleuth involved in the types of mysteries she loved to write about.
On September 1, 1939, with Great Britain on the brink of declaring war on Germany, Josephine Tey is living in the cottage in the small village of Polstead, Suffolk that she inherited from her godmother. Her friend and lover Marta is staying with her and they are looking forward to spending a quiet week together before Marta leaves for America and Josephine returns home to Inverness.
London is in the throes of evacuating children and women with babies before the onset of the Blitz and Josephine has been asked by the vicar’s wife to help receive the busload of evacuees assigned to the village. Families have already volunteered to take in the twenty children being sent to Polstead, however when the buses from London arrive with four times that many on board, chaos ensues as the welcoming committee tries desperately to find homes for the extra evacuees. Only Noah, a young boy is left with no one to take him, so Josephine reluctantly agrees to temporarily take him home with her until he can be a family can be found to look after him.
The following day is the day of the village fete where Josephine has agreed to be a judge for the various events, culminating in a fancy dress parade. At the start of the parade, the devastating discovery is made that Annie, a four-year-old girl is missing. Her mother last saw her the afternoon before at the school hall during the chaotic scramble of finding homes for the extra evacuated children. Annie was cross that her mother was taking in more children herself and had gone off in a huff to stay with her grandmother who lived across the road from the school. However, she never arrived there and neither woman knew she was missing until they both arrived at the fancy dress parade without her. Fortunately, Josephine’s friend DCI Archie Penrose of Scotland Yard is staying with friends in the village and is able to calm everyone down and organise a thorough search for the child.
The search for a missing child becomes a catalyst for historical secrets and lies to be uncovered in this small peaceful village, with the plot drawing in more families in both London and Polstead. Upson’s fine writing realistically conveys the heartbreak of mothers sending children away during this stressful time, trusting that they will be cared for and loved by strangers in some unknown place. The chaos of such a huge evacuation of the very young and the potential for children to be lost or misplaced felt particularly poignant with similar evacuations once again taking place in Europe today. The descriptions of village life at that time in history also felt very evocative of that pre-war period in England, just before everything was about to change forever. Upson’s colourful collection of characters are also well drawn from DCI Penrose to the Vicar’s wife, the spinster sisters living with their bachelor brother, the nosy neighbour and the chatty shopkeeper and of course Josephine herself. Although this is the tenth book in the series, it reads well as a standalone mystery, although after reading it you may then find yourself wanting to devour the whole series.
With thanks to Faber and Faber via Netgalley for a copy to read. Expected publication May 19.