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Josephine Tey reading notes: Daughter of Time

This month’s Reading Notes series is on books by Josephine Tey (the better-known pen-name of Elizabeth MacKintosh). The first post is all about The Daughter of Time which is the other one of my two favorite Tey books. There will be spoilers! (But this all about history, so it doesn’t really matter.)

daughter of timeThe Daughter of Time is a mystery book in which a detective hypothetically solves the murder of the two Princes in the Tower while laid up in the hospital. It is also a book I love very deeply. I am not kidding about either part of this. Tey always tends to be a cerebral writer, for a writer of mysteries, but The Daughter of Time is something else altogether. As I wrote in my notes, “it’s a mystery…about history!” (Sorry, not sorry.)

But it’s also a very typically Tey sort of book. She tends to insert her points into the mouths of characters who are very unlikely to think such things. She’s not very interested in continuity (witness Marta, who basically is whoever Tey needs her to be for this particular book). There’s a nostalgia for a lost Britain which never was, which also ties back to the conservatism of Latchetts in Brat Farrar. She can’t help getting derailed with complaining about the Scots.

And yet, for all this–Teyness–it’s also full of her best qualities as a writer: her vivid characters, her ability to convince you that it all makes sense for as long as the book lasts. This was the book that sent me on a long path of Emotions About Richard III, which is weird and specific but here we are. Rereading it this time, I cared the most about the part of the book that’s about history, about what is remembered and forgotten. I will probably never not cry at the end (“This day was our good King Richard piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of this city” sob sob sob.)

I also am reading it this time in the context of multiple ongoing conversations about American¬† history and the way it is sanitized and wrongly taught. I’m reading it against the backdrop of people claiming that the White House wasn’t built by enslaved people, or that it’s all okay because they were treated well. (Shut up, Bill O’Reilly.) It’s impossible not to think of this. It’s likewise impossible not to notice that Tey manages to be both revisionist and essentially conservative. That is–while The Daughter of Time makes some fascinating points about the way we’re taught history and that it isn’t benign or objective, it also spends a lot of time defending the British government. This is a weird tension that Tey never really resolves. Or rather, she doesn’t think it needs resolving.

(She does make the very accurate point that “when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller but with you.” Anyone who has tried to point out George Washington’s flaws, for instance, will be familiar with this.)

Despite this, her eye to character and her look at Richard III’s reign as a mystery remain really compelling to me. Do I think that Henry VII murdered the Princes? I don’t know. Do I think the historical evidence is as clear as she paints it? Probably not. But it doesn’t matter, in a certain sense. I’m always moved by the story she does tell, of this king who inherited abruptly and did his best to make the country he ruled more prosperous, liberal, and just. I’m moved by the desire on the part of Grant to tell the truth and give him his due. Do I trust that Tey is telling the absolute truth here? No, not really. But I believe it, for the space of 200-odd pages, nonetheless.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 1951, adult mystery (about history) (please don’t be mad at me) (I can’t help it)

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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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Josephine Tey Reading Notes: all the other ones

In this month’s Reading Notes series, I’m looking at books by Josephine Tey (Elizabeth MacKintosh). While I enjoy all of the Tey books I’ve read to varying degrees, I just don’t have much to say about several of them. So I’m combining those books into one post here. There are definitely spoilers below!

the singing sands man in the queue miss pym to love and be wise

The Singing Sands

Tey Writes a Thriller–except, being Tey, it’s a very cerebral thriller and not really one at all. (Despite the hopeful suggestiveness of the cover on the Scribner edition.) However, The Singing Sands is arguably more of a Proper Mystery than some, even if Grant is technically on sick leave for overwork and claustrophobia. (Poor Grant is surely the most sickly detective of the Golden Age.) This one takes place in Scotland, and despite all the negative things Tey likes to say about the Scottish, her descriptions of the countryside are so lovely.

Despite the fact that this is a bit more of a traditional mystery than some, Grant is very much at the center of the book. I don’t believe we get any other points of view here, and we see his reactions to the events. So as long as you care about Grant, then it works. I will say that when I first read this book, I found the mystery element pretty thrilling. So perhaps I am merely growing old and crotchety.

The Man in the Queue

This was the first Grant book, published in 1929 under the Gordon Daviot pen-name. It’s a bit unusual among Tey books because it begins with a murder! To be fair, A Shilling for Candles and The Singing Sands start with deaths that are later shown to be murders, but in The Man in the Queue, someone is just plain stabbed. The fact that it is a first book shows in some ways; the Grant here is not the Grant of Daughter of Time, or even The Singing Sands. These books are never particularly interested in continuity of character, but here he doesn’t really have any personality aside from a vague flair and an almost unbelievable obsession with the case. There’s also no mention of his Scottish connections, which by rights there should be.

Anyway, that’s all to say why I don’t find this one particularly memorable. It’s also a perfect case of a writer coming up with a mystery that’s so strong the detective can’t solve it and the denouement only comes about because the real killer confesses. I believe this is the only time that happens in Tey’s books, but it’s an odd sort of beginning to Grant’s fictional career.

Miss Pym Disposes

Miss Pym Disposes is a non-Grant mystery, published in 1946*. It takes place at a physical training college, which Wikipedia informs me is the kind of school Tey herself went to. It’s a peculiar kind of mystery (I find myself saying that about almost every Tey book) in that Lucy Pym, the main character, is on the scene almost by chance, and doesn’t really do much detecting. In fact, despite the book’s title, she’s overall quite passive. I have a lot of questions about the outcome–she really just decides to not say anything and go back to London? Leaving Mary Innes to do penance for a crime she didn’t commit? And Beau free to just keep on murdering people every time she doesn’t get her way? Come on, Lucy!

Also, sadly, the racism and xenophobia that run through several of Tey’s books are very much present here.

I have also just finished rereading Gaudy Night, and it’s interesting to compare these two books. They’re both mysteries that take place at women’s colleges, and which have at their center questions of female community and the responsibility and wisdom of learning. However, they also have a very different tone and outcome. (Lucy is no Harriet, sorry Lucy.) In some ways, Miss Pym Disposes is more challenging, since the wrongness is at the heart of the college, rather than Gaudy Night’s solution. However, I think it also doesn’t engage as fully or complexly with the questions it raises. Between Harriet and Sayers’ marvelous take on the careful balance between heart and brain, Miss Pym looks a little pale.

* tantalizingly, Miss Pym refers to an Alan that she almost married, but surely not!

To Love and Be Wise

To Love and Be Wise is a somewhat odd book, even for Tey. I think it only really works because her characters are so effective. She can create sympathy for situations and people who would seem boring or terrible in other hands. In any case, it’s not clear for large portions of the book whether an actual crime as occurred. And when the solution is revealed, it’s one that couldn’t be predicted or guessed at. I think there are some similarities with A Shilling for Candles, in the sense that the missing Leslie Searle comes to life through everyone else’s impressions of him. In one sense it’s a very masterful showing-off sort of book, but the ending left me a bit cheated. (I do like Grant’s acceptance of the reveal, but solutions to mysteries where the detective knows something the reader doesn’t will never be my favorite.)

In any case, I read this one less than a week ago and the details are already starting to fade, aside from the gentle send up of various literary genres. I believe there are some nice descriptions of the countryside and houses as well, which Tey usually did have an eye for. But by and large it’s not one that’s really stuck with me, either the first time I read it or now.

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Josephine Tey reading notes: Brat Farrar

This month’s Reading Notes series is on books by Josephine Tey (the better-known pen-name of Elizabeth MacKintosh). The first post is all about Brat Farrar which is one of my two favorite Tey books. There will be spoilers! (But this matters less with Tey than with most mystery writers.)

brat farrar Brat Farrar does not begin with Brat at all. It begins with a small estate in England, with the family who lives on that estate gathered around for breakfast. Tey is always good at writing settings and characters, but the Ashbys and Latchetts are probably my favorite.

Well, that’s not entirely accurate. My favorite is Aunt Bee. I love her. I love more more than anyone else in this book, including Brat. (And I definitely love Brat.) I am not at all objective on the subject of Bee, who I think is a darling and I would like to give her a hug because the rest of this book is going to be wonderful and horrible for her and I love her.

At any rate, throughout Brat Farrar, Tey writes the texture of this small, known, family place, with its quiet and rich history, really well. I find myself having equal and opposite reactions to it: being totally charmed, and at the same time, feeling wary of the essential conservatism inherent in it. After all the thing that drives this book is the idea that there must always be Ashbys at Latchetts. This does get complicated by the end, and yet–and yet.

Into this benign family picture, a small bomb is dropped in the person of Brat Farrar himself. Brat is an orphan who grew up in a Children’s Home and who bears a striking resemblance to Simon Ashby–the Ashbys, it is established, having a strong family resemblance in general. Brat just happens to meet a former neighbor of the Ashbys and is argued into taking the place of Patrick Ashby, the oldest child of the family, who committed suicide after the death of his parents.

We maybe really shouldn’t like Brat, but I really do. Perhaps because Tey takes pains to compare Brat to Patrick–both are quiet, kind, essentially gentle and lovely human beings. Brat himself becomes partisan on Patrick’s behalf. As he takes Pat’s place, he also genuinely comes to care for the other Ashbys, especially Bee, Eleanor, and Jane.

(I will say here and now that I do not believe that ending with Eleanor at all. I just fundamentally don’t believe it. I would quite willingly read Brat as asexual; he cares a great deal about people but I just don’t see him being romantically interested. It feels like a tacked-on sop to convention and I dislike it a lot.)

What’s missing from this book for a good portion of it is a mystery. Patrick Ashby died and Brat has taken his place. There’s perhaps a minor kind of mystery within the story as Aunt Bee and Mr. Sandal (the family solicitor) try to determine if Brat is actually Patrick or not. But for quite a while, we’re simply given this lovely family story, perhaps with some semi-ominous undertones.

And then Brat has some worries about Patrick, and what did actually happen, and then we’re told a good 100 pages from the ending exactly whodunnit, if not exactly how. It’s a peculiar setup, and yet it’s oddly effective. Because a large part of this book is about the lengths people will go to to avoid the truth. The fact that Simon Ashby has been cruel and self-absorbed for most of his life is explained away again and again by those closest to him. It takes Brat, a stranger who also has a connection to the family, to see the truth and act on it.

In a way, this is a story about a certain kind of male pride–one of the key clues to Simon’s real character is the fact that he drops a girl he was interested in as soon as she has a good horse and the chance of beating him. As Brat thinks, “What kind of creature was this Simon Ashby, who could not bear to be beaten by the girl he was in love with?” It’s the way that pride operates within the kind of excusing, “boys will be boys,” culture which allows Simon to get away with it for so long.

And yet, I would hardly call this a feminist book. It’s pretty cruel in places to some of the women portrayed. It also suffers from some of Tey’s ongoing flaws: a propensity to insert Tey’s own views into the mouths of characters who would never say such things, and a dogged persistent racism and xenophobia that mar all of her books to one degree or another.

Although these flaws are real and present, I also do find myself helplessly in love with Brat, with Bee, with the Ashbys and Latchetts. I think it’s most of all because of Brat–because despite the situation he has a kind of reluctant and yet steadfast integrity that keeps him from accepting a comfortable, poisoned existence.

The book ends with a kind of bittersweet hope. Brat survives; Simon does not; Latchetts survives; Bee and Brat leave. For all the worry over keeping an unending line of Ashbys at Latchetts, everyone seems to accept that Eleanor and the younger girls will stay there. The hope lies mostly in Bee and Brat making a new life and a new place together, in Brat’s being given his own place in the family, in Patrick’s finally being given justice. It’s a less positive ending than many mysteries of that era, and yet I find it all the more memorable for that.

Book source: personal library
Book information: 1950; adult mystery

Looking for my other Josephine Tey posts? 

The Daughter of Time

A Shilling for Candles

Miss Pym Disposes; The Singing Sands; The Man in the Queue; To Love and Be Wise