Today’s guest blog is by Nicola Upson who was born in Suffolk and read English at Downing College, Cambridge. Her debut novel, An Expert in Murder, was the first in a series of crime novels whose main character is Josephine Tey - one of the leading authors of Britain's Golden Age of crime writing. An Expert in Murder was dramatised by BBC Scotland for Woman’s Hour.
The Red Barn Murder - the killing of Maria Marten by her lover, William Corder, in May 1827 - is the first true crime I was ever aware of. As a child, I remember summer days out in the Suffolk village where the murder took place, walking past Maria’s house or William’s, fascinated by what had happened there and by the real people behind the legend. I lived in Bury St Edmunds, the town where Corder was hanged, and every weekend I passed the Gaol where the execution took place on the way to my grandmother’s house. So it’s no surprise that the story made such an impact on me, and I realised when I sat down to begin the fifth novel in my ‘Josephine Tey’ series that I’ve always wanted to find a different way to tell it. Tey had Suffolk ancestry, and we know from her work that she was fascinated by true crimes from the past - The Franchise Affair and The Daughter of Time are both based on historical cases - so I felt she would have loved the facts and the mythologies that circle around the Red Barn Murder, too. The challenge was to make the story fresh again, because the case is so well known. At the time, it attracted extraordinary media attention and it’s been a popular subject for books, plays and films ever since. I wanted the novel to question some of the stereotypes of the story that have lived on, whilst avoiding the temptation to re-write history by giving the crime too modern a spin or forcing some of my own attitudes onto the characters.
As The Death of Lucy Kyte took shape, I found that the least interesting thing for me about Maria Marten is who killed her. Solving puzzles is at the heart of detective fiction and it’s human nature to want to get to the truth, to look for a new revelation in an old crime, to find a miscarriage of justice and right it if possible. Several books have created alternative scenarios to Corder’s guilt, suggesting that Maria’s stepmother knew more than she admitted, or that others were somehow involved in Maria’s death. As a crime writer, these theories interest me, even though I’m still convinced that she died at Corder’s hand. But as a woman, I wanted to know more about Maria and her life, to understand the situation she found herself in and the circumstances that gave her no choice but to walk with a man she no longer loved to the Red Barn on that fateful day in May. Strip away the bonnets and the ballads, and you’re left with a timeless story of a woman we all recognise.
Ironically, perhaps, that’s what I felt hadn’t been explored - Maria Marten, and who she really was. History offers us very limited versions of her, each a variation on the theme of victim or whore. The woman we think we know, handed down to us through films and melodrama, is not the woman who walked the fields of Polstead. She wasn’t the innocent maiden any more than William Corder was the wicked squire - three illegitimate children by different fathers testify to that - but the reality is more fascinating than the stereotype; she was a good mother by all accounts, well-educated, interesting and fun to be with, a woman who made mistakes and tried to put them right, someone you and I might know from our circle of friends - but you have to look very hard to find that living, breathing person. The real Maria Marten faded from sight in the aftermath of her death and is now forever lost to us. Her name - originally spelt ‘Martin’ - has been changed by history, and the portrait sold in the streets of Bury on the eve of Corder’s execution was actually drawn from a likeness of her sister. Even Maria’s face, as we know it, is a lie.
And that still happens: a few miles from where Maria died and nearly two centuries later, Steve Wright murdered five Suffolk women; the case was a national sensation but I doubt that many people now, less than ten years after it happened, could name each one of his victims or bring their faces to mind. How many of us could list the Yorkshire Ripper’s victims, or Christie’s, or Ted Bundy's? Anonymity and distortion are too often the fate of a woman who is murdered: we lose sight of her life in the shock of her death; over time, her identity is lost until she exists only in the shadow of our fascination with her killer. I wanted to bring Maria Marten back into focus in this book, to give her loss a human face and voice. In fiction, as in life, there’s much more to crime than a puzzle and a solution.
The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson is out now in paperback, £7.99 (Faber & Faber)More information about Nicola Upson and her work can be found on her website. She can also be found on Facebook and you can also follow her on Twitter @nicolaupsonbook.