Josephine Tey reading notes: A Shilling for Candles

This month’s Reading Notes series is on books by Josephine Tey (the better-known pen-name of Elizabeth MacKintosh). This post is about her 1936 book, A Shilling for Candles, which features Inspector Grant. There will be spoilers! (But this matters less with Tey than with most mystery writers.)

a shilling for candlesI reread almost all of Tey’s books while working on this series (I skipped The Franchise Affair, which I have vague memories of disliking), and I was surprised by how much I liked A Shilling for Candles, given that I had no real recollection of it. For me, it’s the most successful of the more traditional mystery books that Tey wrote. While it certainly never reached the level of affection that I have for either Brat Farrar or The Daughter of Time, I did find it engrossing and enjoyable.

I think this is partly because Tey relies a little less on Grant as the center of the book. He’s certainly very much the main character, and good chunks of the book are devoted to his finding out information and setting up the twists and turns of the story. But we also get perspective from other characters, notably Erica Burgoyne, which opens everything up beyond Grant’s own thoughts and reactions.

As usual, Tey really shines in her descriptions of character and place. A lot of this book in particular rests on whether the reader buys Grant’s instinctive liking of Robin Tisdall, despite later events. Obviously I can’t speak for everyone, but this reader did buy it. Perhaps this is partly because Grant has been shown to be a shrewd judge of character in other books, but I think it’s also because Tey is so good at quick, vivid character sketches. And there are some lovely, atmospheric descriptions of the countryside as well.

Like To Love and Be Wise, which revolves around an absent character, A Shilling for Candles partly relies on how much the reader is interested in and believes in the picture of Christine Clay we’re given. Tey is remarkably good at this, considering that she pulls it off in two separate books. Christine emerges as a complex, warm, vivid character, and Grant’s commitment to solving the mystery of her death makes sense.

Unlike most of her Grant books, Tey chooses to give us another point-of-view character. Erica Burgoyne, the daughter of the Chief Constable and a formidable character in her own right, who also acts as a bit of a leavening agent. It’s nice to see a character who is a little less cerebral and inward-turning that Grant himself. And while there’s a bit of exceptionalism and not-like-the-other-girls going on, I also found myself charmed by Erica and the strength of her inward compass.

Some of the more minor threads (Edward Champenis, for example) are wrapped up in a somewhat haphazard way, but this did bother me less than in other books. And it’s fair to say that Tey readers in general aren’t there for the whodunnit anyway. And there’s the kind of insularity and distrust of Other that runs through all of Tey to the point that it becomes, distressingly, almost standard.

Still, I do think this is one of her more successful mysteries as mysteries. The characters are rich and warmly drawn, the puzzle is convoluted and engaging, and I really liked the addition of another point of view to Grant’s. If it didn’t touch me as much as Brat Farrar or Daughter of Time, it is an book I enjoyed reading.

Book source: public library

Book information: 1936, adult mystery

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5 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reading notes, reviews

5 responses to “Josephine Tey reading notes: A Shilling for Candles

  1. alinaccl

    I loved The Franchise Affair, it was my first Tey (the audiobook is great). Can you remember what you disliked about it?

    • Maureen Eichner

      You know, at this point I can’t remember exactly, aside from a general feeling of let-down. Maybe I should give the audiobook a try and see how it strikes me!

  2. Pingback: August 2016 round up | By Singing Light

  3. I have finished now – at your recommendation – and I agree that I have enjoyed this more than any other Tey I’ve read apart from Brat Farrar (for which I have a very soft spot). I haven’t read A Daughter of Time recently enough to remember it well, but I was so in love with Richard III at the time that I wasn’t paying attention to plot, structure or Grant to be able to pass judgment on it *now*.

    I was a bit disappointed by the resolution of this – in the same way I am always disappointed by the resolution of Gaudy Night (WHICH I LOVE, I MAY ADD) – *why* does it always have to be the crazy lady and why do we have to get a final snapshot of her sheer insanity/psychosis/asocial behavior at the end of the book to convince us she is crazy? In Lydia whatsit’s case she’s really OBVIOUSLY deluded, to the point where I’d dismissed her as a suspect because it was SO OBVIOUS to pin the blame on her. (and then I was really, really, sad that there wasn’t somehow a BIGGER person to take down for such a BIG MURDER. But that is not really very fair of me. Because that’s not the way life works.)

    I loved Erica.

    I also really enjoyed Grant’s descent into increased exhaustion and frazzlement – I laughed and laughed when he got silly over the B&B owner threatening to call the police.

    And I was pleased at the way the Champneis thread turned out, because I’d invested a lot of energy into trying to figure out what was going on with Galeria there (paging back, noting Harmon’s place of birth & connecion to Champneis, etc). Someone commented on your twists post that they like it when you go “oh of COURSE!” rather than “no way!” at the twist. This was an “of course!” moment for me. (Even if it was a bit of a red herring.)

    The casual racism, as it always is to modern sensibilities, is very uncomfortable to read.

    THANK YOU so much for your review, which made me pick this up! I enjoyed it more than I’ve enjoyed a book for a long time.

  4. PS I put a spoiler warning at the beginning of that post which did not appear when I posted the comment. Please feel free to put it back in, because I can’t figure out how to edit the comment!

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