Josephine Tey: The Daughter of Time

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Daughter_of_TimeEverything in that history had been hearsay. And if there was one word that a policeman loathed more than another it was hearsay. Especially when applied to evidence.

I continue my increasingly-close-to-completion quest to read the CWA’s top 100 with number one in the charts, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. This wasn’t so much leaving the best until almost last as an exercise in delaying the inevitable. I’ve become increasingly fond of Josephine Tey’s writing in recent years, so I was feeling a bit ambivalent about giving The Daughter of Time the panning I remembered it richly deserved.

For the uninitiated, The Daughter of Time is Tey’s attempt to rewrite the popular view of history in favour of the much maligned Richard III, supposed murderer of the Princes in the Tower in 1483, and one of the chief villains in the English monarchy.

Tey approaches her subject stealthily. Her series policeman, Alan Grant, is confined to a hospital bed after a humiliating fall through a trapdoor in the course of his duties. With only a hospital ceiling to stare at, leavened by brief interactions with his favourite nurses The Midget and The Amazon, and the occasional visit from friends and colleagues, Grant seeks refuge in history. Here Tey’s favourite theme – faces – is at the fore. Grant is inspired by a portrait of Richard which looks like anything but a killer to read up on the king. His survey of the available sources begins with The Amazon’s treasured school textbook, moves on to the ‘official’ historical accounts of Thomas More, and takes in some historical fiction before getting to contemporary histories and chronicles.

Overall the effect is like a Radio 4 discussion programme in which historians tell us about stuff. Each source is discussed with Grant’s visitors in some detail and then – usually – dismissed, until Richard is exonerated. Grant is stunned by the lack of evidence, and finds Richard difficult to cast as a murderer to boot.

‘You know,’ Grant said, ‘from the police point of view there is no case against Richard at all. And I mean that literally. It isn’t that the case isn’t good enough. Good enough to bring into court, I mean. There, quite literally, isn’t any case against him at all.’ […] It would have been a silly murder, that murder of the boy Princes; and Richard was a remarkably able man. It was base beyond description; and he was a man of great integrity. It was callous; and he was noted for his warm-heartedness.

I think The Daughter of Time has been robbed of much of its impact by modern history teaching. ‘Did Richard III kill the Princes in the Tower?’ is a very good way to teach the value of analysing your sources and I’m sure most children decide that he didn’t. There are some examples at the foot of this review. Yet in Tey’s era the rumour about Richard was obviously still widely accepted:

‘It isn’t gossip,’ she [The Amazon] said, hurt. ‘You’ll find it in Sir Thomas More’s history of his time. And you can’t find a more respected or trustworthy person in the whole of history than Sir Thomas More, now can you?’
‘No. It would be bad manners to contradict Sir Thomas.’

(I did wonder at how many people – from nurses to policemen to actors to housekeepers – had relatively informed opinions about Richard III. I’m pretty sure people don’t really carry their school histories front of mind, even if they keep the books.)

Maybe I’ve mellowed since I last read it, but I don’t think The Daughter of Time deserved my previous opinions. I’m increasingly convinced Tey couldn’t write a bad character, and, even though nobody actually does anything in this book, the reader does feel like he’s meeting them for real. The cast of warm and well-rounded supporting characters includes a flamboyant actress, Grant’s housekeeper Mrs Tinker, the aforementioned nurses, and an enthusiastic young American historian.

He was a tall boy, hatless, with soft fair curls crowning a high forehead and a much too big tweed coat hanging unfastened round him in negligent folds, American-wise. Indeed, it was obvious that he was in fact American. He brought over the chair, planted himself on it with the coat spread round him like some royal robe and looked at Grant with kind brown eyes whose luminous charm not even the horn-rims could dim.

There are some nice pieces of satire on the state of modern novels (or possibly frustration at being tied to a genre):

Authors today wrote so much to a pattern that their public expected it. The public talked about ‘a new Silas Weekley’ or ‘a new Lavinia Fitch’ exactly as they talked about ‘a new brick’ or ‘a new hairbrush’.

And a charming bit of self-deprecation in the off-stage character of Madeleine March, like Tey a playwright as well as a novelist, who drops a play to write a book instead:

‘After practically promising me that she would write it! After all our get-together and my plans for when this endless thing finally comes to an end. I had even talked to Jacques about clothes! And now she decides that she must write one of her awful little detective stories. She says she must write it while it is fresh—whatever that is.’

Overall, I still feel The Daughter of Time is like a primer written for the intelligent young person – a bit worthy. Not really a mystery in the genre sense of the word, and definitely not one of the best ever, but it’s well written and an inventive way to communicate an idea.

Josephine Tey
The Daughter of Time
First published in the UK by Peter Davies, 1951
This edition Cornerstone Digital, 2011
162 pages in print
Source: Kindle
Final destination: A keeper

See also: Students are organised into 6 teams to construct a case seeking to prove a particular fate for the Princes in the Tower. At the end of the exercise students write-up their findings declaring Richard guilty or innocent of the crime. How certain are we that Richard III murdered
the Princes in the Tower?

A Penguin a Week: As premises go it’s fairly ambitious. Conventional mystery novels exist in a world of certainty: authors can impose constraints to ensure this. The number of suspects, motives and clues is limited, and over the course of the story all the clues can be revealed, potential suspects can be eliminated one by one, and it is possible to deduce a single correct solution. But the real world is not nearly so certain. Police are fallible, and so are their methods: crimes go unsolved, innocent people get arrested. Solutions depend on how many clues have been uncovered, and how is it possible to know how many remain undiscovered?


About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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8 Responses to Josephine Tey: The Daughter of Time

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    I’m glad you’re feeling more kindly disposed towards this one, Rich.. it is, of course, just my own opinion, but I think this one really does stand up to scrutiny, especially, as you say, with regard to the characters.


  2. Here are my thoughts on it Basically, good book, rubbish mystery and the inspiration for the investigation is nonsense…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m with the good Doctor on this (and I think Julian Symons agrees with us). Actually much prefer Dexter’s homage, THE WENCH IS DEAD.


  4. Guy Savage says:

    I have this one but haven’t got to it yet.


  5. Always enjoyed this book. Nicola Upson does a grand series with Josephine Tey as the main character, which is ironic as Tey was McKinnon’s nom de plume for mysteries. I adore that series!


  6. It’s a long time since I read this, but I loved it to bits when I did – I’m a sucker for someone investigating a historical mystery (Marple and Poirot often do) and I found the historical aspect fascinating. I may well re-read this for the 1951 Club!


  7. I really like Josephine Tey, but this is probably my least favourite. It is readable enough, but to call it best mystery story ever is absurd – it’s not even her best. It is nicely constructed & entertaining. However, she is guilty of what she accuses others of in the book – she selects her evidence to suit.


  8. TMM says:

    In 1963, analysis of The Daughter of Time was used as a first year subject in Law at the University of Melbourne.


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