A good read . . . dark deeds

Maria Marten's Cottage

Maria Marten's Cottage - Credit: Archant

Louise Denyer delves into The Death of Lucy Kyte, a gripping novel set in Polstead against the backdrop of a famous murder

Death of Lucy Kyte

Death of Lucy Kyte - Credit: Archant

As I turned off the A1071, carefully winding through country lanes edged with leaf-laden trees blocking out the clear blue summer sky, and tentatively descended the steep hill towards the charming village of Polstead, a genuinely eerie feeling came over me.

I felt as if something a little darker was lurking in the shadows and burdening this otherwise tranquil setting.

Nicola Upson has described having a similar haunting experience when she undertook the research for her latest Josephine Tey novel, The Death of Lucy Kyte, believing that the scars of a murder can linger long after an ending brought about by the judicial tightening of the hangman’s noose. For Upson, setting is crucial to a novel, determining the plot and becoming a character in its own right, so it was perhaps inevitable she would choose to set her latest work of crime fiction in an infamous place with which she was personally familiar.

In some ways it doesn’t seem quite right to classify this gripping page-turner as fiction because significant elements are actually based in fact. Set in 1936 with subtle references to the abdication of Edward VIII and his secret liaisons with Wallis Simpson in Felixstowe, this novel begins with the real-life Scottish mystery writer Josephine Tey inheriting a quaint cottage in Polstead following the death of her actress godmother, Hester Larkspur.

Nicola Upson

Nicola Upson - Credit: Archant

However, the bequest comes with a strange set of conditions and unanswered questions, which Tey feels compelled to get to the bottom of. Hester’s story soon becomes inextricably linked with the murder of Maria Marten and the devastating effect this continued to have on the local community more than 100 years after her death.

The main reason why the story of the Red Barn Murder became so notorious was because it had all the key elements of a classic melodrama, which caught the imagination of the public at the time. Newspapers were full of the details of the case, songs were written, and performances were staged before William Corder was even sentenced. Adding to the intrigue were the vivid dreams of Maria’s stepmother, which ultimately revealed Maria’s grisly fate, although surprisingly the credibility of such unorthodox evidence was not questioned at the time.

Most Read

Fiction is a powerful way of reinterpreting the past and what struck me most when reading this novel was the similarity between solving a mystery and conducting family history research. Josephine has little memory of her godmother and must therefore rely on her treasured possessions and the stories of those who knew her to form a better understanding of her life and character. Whilst the romantic idea of inheriting what estate agents would now call “a much sought-after period property located in the heart of the Suffolk countryside, requiring some updating”, this tale does make you wonder what it would actually be like to be in Josephine’s position and just how intrusive you would feel.

The Death of Lucy Kyte is also about the rapid passing of time and what it means to be truly alone; the regrets we have when looking back at our lives and how we compare ourselves to others as well as the opportunities we could have taken or enjoyed more, and the people closest to us that we could have gotten to know better.

Maria Marten

Maria Marten - Credit: Archant

The Red Barn murder is still considered to be one of the most fascinating and notorious crimes of the 19th century. Maria Marten was just 25 when her lover, local tenant farmer William Corder, reputedly killed her on May 18, 1827 in a barn half a mile from where she lived.

Their relationship was far from the fairy tale Maria was seeking. Nicknamed “Foxey” at school, Corder had a slippery reputation and kept the company of criminals whilst living in London. The prodigal son returned to Suffolk upon the death of his elder brother Thomas, which was closely followed by the tragic loss of his father and younger brothers, leaving him to run the farm with his mother. Soon after his return to the village he started to meet with Maria in secret and rather inevitably she became pregnant. The child died within a few weeks of its birth and to avoid exposure, Corder heartlessly buried it in an undisclosed field.

Understandably, relations between them became turbulent and argumentative after this sad event, particularly as Corder was in no hurry to marry Maria. There are numerous theories as to what happened in the barn on that fateful day but whatever the circumstances, before his eventual execution Corder confessed to accidentally shooting Maria, who lay buried in the barn for almost a year before her body was discovered.