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Cambridge author Nicola Upson to give talk on the true crime that inspired her latest book

By Alex Spencer

Author of Nine Lessons, Nicola Upson. Picture: Keith Heppell
Author of Nine Lessons, Nicola Upson. Picture: Keith Heppell

Novel is inspired by Cambridge rapist Peter Cook.

Author Nicola Upson is giving a talk on her latest novel, which was inspired by the true life story of the Cambridge rapist.

Although her novel is set back in the 1930s, she remembers vividly the period in the 197s when serial rapist Peter Cook was at large in the city.

She will be speaking at Cherry Hinton Library on Thursday (September 20) about how it influence her latest work, Nine Lessons.

Nicola’s debut novel, An Expert in Murder, was the first in a series of crime novels to feature Josephine Tey (a real-life author during Britain’s golden age of crime writing). Nine Lessons is the latest book in that series.

Nicola explained: “ As its title suggests, my book Nine Lessons is set in Cambridge,-the city I have lived in and loved for 30 years-in the run-up to Christmas 1937.

“The novel had twin inspirations, both part of Cambridge’s history: a love of MR James’s ghost stories, which are some of the finest ever written; and a real-life haunting, the period in the mid -1970s when Peter Cook, the Cambridge Rapist, terrorised the streets of a quiet and beautiful university town.

“MR James was Provost of King’s College before World War 1. He wrote those classic tales in his college rooms, emerging on Christmas Eve with the ink still wet and blowing out every candle except one before delighting friends with his latest “pleasing terror”.

“When your novels blend fact and fiction, you are always on the lookout for a window in the truth to let your imagination through, and in December 1913 James failed to finish a new story.

“I found myself inventing reasons for this that were more sinister than pressures of time or college business. What if something terrible happened that Christmas? What if, 25 years later, those men who gathered to be entertained start dying, killed off in ways that echoed James’s stories?

“Because my books bridge the golden age with the modern, it was surprisingly easy to add a 1970s crime and transport it back to the 1930s,replacing female students with nurses and shop workers but creating the same sense of fear.

“Peter Cook assaulted at least nine women, but his crimes affected the whole city: removing the freedom that women had fought so hard for; casting suspicion on to innocent men; and humiliating a local police force at a time when even Scotland Yard had no specialist methods of investigating rape.

“My partner ran a music club in a Cambridge pub at the time of the rapist, and when Cook was finally caught and his photograph appeared in the newspaper, she realised she knew him: he worked for a wine merchant and she had served him at the bar every week when he delivered supplies to the pub.

“It was that sudden, horrifying moment of realisation that struck me; my character has the same revelation in the book, when the suspect steps forward from a crowd of possible suspects.

“The rapist’s legacy is still tangible in the barred ground-floor windows that you see if you walk around the city, as well as in the memories of those who lived through the fear.

“Shocking, then, that in a 2014 survey by the University of Cambridge Students’ Union , 8.4 percent of the 2,000-plus respondents had experienced a serious attempt at sexual assault. The leather mask and ‘beast of bedsit-land ‘tag that made Cook’s crimes infamous have gone but the real problem-that misplaced sense of entitlement-remains.

“Many of MR James’s stories carry a stark warning that we forget the past at our peril. How right he was.”

Meet Nicola Upson, author of the Josephine Tey Crime Novels Organised by Cambridgeshire Library Services as part of the Cherry Hinton Festival.

Venue: Cherry Hinton Library Time: 7.00pm–8.30pm Price: £5, to include light refreshments. Book your place at Cherry Hinton Library, call 0345 045 5225 or pay on the door.


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