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.)
I 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