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Two for SorrowTwo for Sorrow is the third installment in Nicola Upson’s clever mystery series that imagines episodes from the life of mystery writer Josephine Tey. Tey was one of the pseudonyms used by Scottish author Elizabeth Mackintosh, who was active from the 1930s to the early 1950s; she also wrote two plays and a biography as Gordon Daviot.

Here Josephine is in London doing research for a novel about the “Finchley baby farmers”—two women who preyed on unwed mothers, collecting fees for maternity care and adoption services, and then murdered the newborns. Upson’s novel (set in 1936) begins with Josephine’s first draft of the scene (set in 1903) in which the criminals, Sach and Walters, are led to the gallows at Holloway Prison; additional drafts from the imaginary book are interspersed throughout.

Josephine seeks out Celia Bannerman, the former headmistress of her physical training college, as a key source. At an earlier time in her career, Celia served as Sach’s prison warder and found an adoptive home for Sach’s young daughter Elizabeth; later, Celia arranged for the girl to attend the same college. It was during Josephine’s senior year at school when Elizabeth, a freshman, hanged herself. This rippling out of tragedy is the theme Josephine hopes to explore in her novel: “what interests me is the impact the crimes had on everyone else around [the murderers].”

As far as I know, the real Josephine Tey never published a novel about the baby farmers—but she did write one (in 1946) about a suicide at a women’s physical training college: Miss Pym Disposes, which I read earlier this year. (I’m a longtime fan of Tey’s mysteries.) While the fictional Josephine grapples with the blurry lines between truth and fiction, Upson plays with those same lines: not only with Josephine  but with Sach and Walters (who really were executed for killing babies) and the real/fictional London theater scene of the 1930s (connected as it is to Tey’s success as a playwright).

It’s not necessary to have read the real Tey’s works to enjoy her fictional reincarnation in Two for Sorrow. There’s a harrowing murder to be solved, which involves Josephine’s friends in the theater and engrosses her would-be lover Archie Penrose of Scotland Yard. (Note to readers of delicate sensibility: The description of the murder is intense—and a little unexpected in this typically more genteel divide of the crime genres.)

Upson’s characters may be obsessed with crimes past and present, but they also meditate on love, loneliness, and being alone. Setting her novels in England between the wars, the author focuses on women characters who want to be—or must be—independent in a world where there are fewer men, more opportunities, shifting social roles, and persistent prejudice. Like her fellow mystery writer Jacqueline Winspear—whose Maisie Dobbs series is set in the same time and place—Upson lets her upstanding characters have sex outside of marriage in an era when that was still taboo; Upson goes further, frankly exploring homosexual relationships as well. Both series appeal to readers’ modern sensibilities while providing an addictive dose of crime in bygone times.