During my stay in England in my early twenties, I came down with a second attack of measles. While I was in quarantine, my fiancé left a novel outside my door, a favorite of his which he thought would ease my convalescence. The book was The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey, a mystery which featured her recurrent detective, Alan Grant. As the story opened, Grant was laid up by an accident and bored. Being a detective, he decided take a stab at solving an historical mystery: Who murdered the twin princes in the Tower of London? In Shakespeare’s play, Richard III, the king was the villain, but not all historians agree.
As Grant was bedridden, he relied upon the kindness of others to bring him material to aid his investigation and the conclusion he drew from the evidence contradicts Shakespeare’s version. Tey did such a good job with history that some experts have given her version the nod as the true account. So there we have it. Two fictional versions of the murder in the Tower, both spun from the imagination of writers, versions which are discussed to this day and remain entertaining. Richard III is my favorite of Shakespeare’s dramas, and The Daughter of Time is a cherished mystery. Why shouldn’t it be? Tey rescued me from my sickroom doldrums admirably.
A review of Tey’s work appeared recently in Vanity Fair. The author, Francis Wheen compared Tey’s style to the madams of the English mystery cannon—Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh — two of whom, Christie and Sayers, founded the famous Detection Club in 1930. (“Her Own Best Mystery, by Francis Wheen, Vanity Fair, October 2015, pgs. 178-80.) For these women, the template of a good story was a detective who solved each crime by wit rather than divine revelation, feminine intuition, coincidence, an Act of God or any other such “Jiggery-Pokery.” Further, their criminals were in the plot and not pulled out of a hat. (Ibid pg. 179.)
According to Wheen, Tey didn’t much care for their cannon, lived a secluded life, devoted herself almost entirely to her work and, above all, had a flare which her peers did not. Her plots could “be read on many levels…” (Ibid pg. 180.) Not to put too fine a point on it, those are the novels I prefer and strive to write.
How ironic that Tey and Shakespeare, who were fascinated by Richard 111 and devoted their talents to revealing the mystery of the man, should live shadowy lives, themselves. If the Globe Theater hadn’t been destroyed by a fire, we might know more of Shakespeare, but Tey’s anonymity was intentional. Her real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh. She kept to herself by preference, believing people were a distraction to her work and died 1952, at a time when records could be preserved by various means if a person wished to do it. Tey didn’t. When Nicola Upson attempted to write a biography about the author, she discovered, “a lot of myths and half truths have been created over the years. Admittedly, she [Tey] started one or two of them herself.” (Ibid pg 180.)
In my view, the life of a writer is irrelevant to the work he or she creates and hold with Tey that whether an artist takes naps in the afternoon or sugar with tea is really nobody’s business.
(Originally posted 11/20/15)