Friday, September 05, 2008

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Daughter of Time,” by Josephine Tey

(Editor’s note: This is the 22nd installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Choosing this time is Judith Cutler, the wife of prolific novelist Edward Marston. She’s the author of two long-running series--one featuring amateur sleuth Sophie Rivers, the other starring Detective Sergeant Kate Power--as well as a pair of series with shorter histories, the first featuring Chief Superintendent Fran Harman [Still Waters] and the second led by the Reverend Tobias Campion [Shadow of the Past]).

Every schoolboy knows that truth is the daughter of time, and every crime fiction reader knows that Josephine Tey’s most famous novel is a masterpiece, in that it exonerates Richard III, the 15th-century King of England, from one of the most heinous crimes in history.

Tey’s series protagonist, Inspector Alan Grant, like many of the Golden Age detectives, is a gentleman, with abundant charm, elegance, and wit. Although he appears to dislike and disdain his two nurses, The Midget (probably “no better than she ought to be”) and The Amazon (who nonetheless provides the school history books that inspire him), he enjoys friendships with a range of social “types” from leading lady Marta Hallard to his cleaning lady, Mrs. Tinker. It is, however, noticeable that not many of them visit him while he is lying flat on his back in hospital after an injury sustained during the course of duty. (Naturally, he is in a private room, not bothered by hoi polloi.) He whiles away the tedium, and presumably the pain, though bedsores are beneath Tey’s notice, by studying the ceiling with increasing frustration.

Marta Hallard, who always brings glamour into his room, also brings rescue in the form of a sheaf of portraits for him to examine and fantasize about. It is his initial reaction to one of them, the famous National Portrait Gallery painting of Richard III, that sets in train this whole brief novel. It is only a gut reaction, and several other characters react differently to it--however, Grant becomes absolutely tenacious in his belief that no man with a face like Richard’s could have killed the innocent Princes in the Tower. He has an equal and opposite reaction to the portrait of Henry VII, whom he believes could easily be a villain.

Unable to employ his usual, stolid police sidekick, Sergeant Williams, Grant needs the services of other researchers. Help is at hand in the form of a young American scholar, Brent Carradine, who wants to make something of his life before being sucked back into the family money-making machine. Carradine and Grant share the premise that since Richard could not have committed the crime, someone else must have retrospectively framed the innocent Yorkist--the real murderer, of course.

Grant may be trapped in a cold, clinical room, but he is determined to open an investigation into one of the most colorful and action-packed periods of English history.

The first historian to be examined and found wanting is none other than Sir Thomas More. He is dismissed on several grounds: he was only 5 when the killing is supposed to have taken place, he appears to have used backstairs gossip without question, and--most importantly--he was writing for a Tudor monarch, naturally anxious to blacken the name of any Plantagenets. Other sources cited include the eminent Victorian critic, Dr. James Gairdner, and a novelist, Evelyn Payne-Ellis, whose book Rose of Raby is quoted so extensively and altogether without acknowledgment that one assumes that Payne-Ellis is one of the author’s noms de plume. As Gordon Daviot, Tey (real name: Elizabeth MacKintosh) wrote a very successful play also mentioned, Richard of Bordeaux. Can it be that she makes another off-stage, self-mocking appearance as Madeleine March, a playwright who knocks off detective novels in six weeks? Hallard wants March to write a play especially for her, but the detective novel must come first.

Grant’s own investigations are necessarily confined to reading the books his friends provide, one even coming from a lowly public library. Grant’s education was clearly very much better than the average pupil’s today, and he ranges through the ramifications of two hugely extended families with ease, no mean feat when the names are duplicated and sometimes changed. (For lesser mortals’ benefit Tey provides family trees of the Nevills and the Plantagenets.)

Since Grant and his team cannot search for physical evidence, he must employ the purest of the detective’s weapons, ratiocination. Using more recent historical examples, Grant shows that historical rumor is often woolly and sometimes downright misleading: we all “know,” for instance, about the wicked British government action against the Scottish Covenanters, or the evils of the Boston Massacre, as depicted by Paul Revere, but a quick look at the facts will disabuse us.

Slowly and inexorably Grant demolishes the case against Richard, by establishing his previous record as a good family man and a benign ruler. Most of all, Richard simply did not need to kill the two Princes in the Tower. On the other hand, Henry VII was a mere adventurer, whose private life was at best murky. In contrast with Richard’s habit of being gracious even to his enemies, Henry was noted even in his day for imprisoning and then, with the thinnest of pretexts, executing all other claimants to the throne--to which, since young Edward, Earl of Warwick had the strongest birth-claim, he had no right whatsoever.

Brent Carradine has found his life work at last--he will write the definitive study of the period and make his name that way. Only imagine his dismay when he finds that he is not alone in his suppositions: right from the 17th century, Ricardians had been coming to that very same conclusion. As for Grant, he has confirmed that his famous “nose” for the faces of criminals and the innocent has not let him down.

Or has it?

When I first read The Daughter of Time, not so very long after its original publication in 1951, it was already a modern classic, essential reading for anyone who cared about history or detective fiction. A look on Google will confirm that I was not alone in being overwhelmed when I read it for the first time. But now I face a problem. Why was I so disappointed on re-reading it? Is it simply because the book, with all its casual but vaguely offensive social assumptions, is outdated? Or have my expectations of what a crime novel should involve changed over the years?

On the minus side, one winces at the casual assumptions underlying the analysis of Mrs. Tinker’s hats, and the unquestioned snobbery dominating Marta Hallard’s dealings with the nurses and even Mrs. Tinker herself. One yearns--as no doubt Grant must have done--for some action. Nowhere in this book is there what has become a cornerstone of modern crime fiction--a sense of jeopardy. At times the plethora of names threatens to overwhelm: it would not have been a matter of padding to include more reminders and explanations. The case for Henry VII’s guilt is based on unexplored assumptions--Grant’s reading is at bottom as selective as rumors about the Covenanters’ martyrdoms, which time has mislead us into believing. And nowhere is the premise questioned that Sir Thomas More cannot be a truthful historian simply because he was not present at the time of the killings.

On the plus side, this is a most literate piece of fiction, every word doing its work and doing it well. The characterizations are deft and largely sympathetic. There is the engaging paradox that so much investigation into history-changing events can take place from what is effectively a cell. The manipulation and deployment of historical research is breathtaking. The whole is so wonderfully compelling that one wants to finish The Daughter of Time at one sitting.

A great novel of its time, or a great novel for all times? Reader, the verdict is yours.

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Next Friday’s “forgotten book” will be chosen by Amy Myers, the author of Tom Wasp and the Murdered Stunner (the first in a series about a Victorian chimney sweep Tom Wasp) and Murder in the Mist (the fifth entry in her Peter and Georgia Marsh series). She’s also known for her Auguste Didier series, and for her short stories, some of which have been collected in Murder, ’Orrible Murder.

3 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

This would be on my top ten favorites. And many others, I predict from that fact it showed up twice today. Maybe this will send people out to find it.

Pepper Smith said...

Yep. I really enjoyed this book. I wish she'd had time to write more books.

Kerrie said...

I think Tey's writing may have dated with time and that may have contributed to your feelings of disappointment, but certainly at the time of publication it was a different and fresh approach, not withstanding that the problem was one that many had chewed over for centuries.
Thanks for your comprehensive "review"