Last month I wrote about how much I was looking forward to reading the final three novels of Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant series and to see if I might agree with the view of the British Crime Writers’ Association that ‘The Daughter of Time’ is THE greatest crime novel ever written. That particular claim was made in 1990, and whilst I know there have been many fine crime and detective novels written in the intervening three decades and that it is for future generations to assign Golden, Silver, Bronze, Tin, Plastic or whatever ages to particular genres of culture, I can’t help but doubt there might have been anything to usurp it from that position. After all, if that eminent gaggle of experts deemed Tey’s novel better than a Sayers, a Hammet or a Chandler then What Hope anyone writing after 1990?
Before coming to my own decisions on this, however, I thought I had best do things in the right order, which brings us to ‘To Love And Be Wise’, the fourth of the Inspector Grant series which was published in 1950. Now ‘The Franchise Affair’ from two years previously could reasonably be argued as barely belonging to the Grant Series at all, given that the Inspector appears only fleetingly in a supporting role. In this it feels as though Tey is experimenting with the form of the crime/detective novel whilst still feeling the need to pin it into the series that she started before WW2, however loosely. Arguably Tey’s ultimate experiment in form would come with ‘The Daughter Of Time’ but that was still a year in the future when ‘To Love And Be Wise’ made its appearance and as such it feels like a bridge between these two flares of experimentation, perhaps easily dismissed as something that rather treads water before the next big push forward. That would be a harsh judgement, however, for ‘To Love And Be Wise’ is a terrific and highly entertaining example of fine post-WW2 detective fiction. It is the book where Tey regroups and clarifies her ideas about the Inspector Grant character, fleshing him out from the bare bones established in ‘The Man In The Queue’ and ‘A Shilling For Candles.’
Gone almost entirely are the casual racist and sexist outbursts that uncomfortably pepper those two books, and indeed this is true generally for the detective fiction writers whose work spans the period of WW2. In particular it is agonisingly poignant to note that the causal antisemitism of the 1920s and 1930s is almost entirely erased in their books from the 1940s onwards. In Tey’s case specifically, it is as though ‘The Franchise Affair’ was a necessary trial separation between author and character, each withdrawing to question their position in the relationship before reuniting and Giving It Another Go. ‘To Love And Be Wise’ then is a return to a more recognisable detective fiction form with Inspector Grant investigating the disappearance of a young American photographer from the stereotypically picturesque English village of Salcott St. Mary. It’s classic Golden Age in structure, assemblage of character and location, yet it also feels ineffably Other. A lingering sense of unease hangs over everything, as though in recognition that whilst many might wish to attain/regain a Lost England, this is as elusive and imaginary as it always was. Just as a vision of a Romantic English Rural Idyll was mediated between 1914 and the 30s as a vision of What We Are Fighting (and thereafter Fought) For, so it returns here as an illusory spectre. In Tey’s hands though, this illusion is exactly that, and the novel leads us enthusiastically through a landscape of inevitable change in the face of stubborn nostalgia for a knowingly semi-fictional past. The village is overrun with wealthy Artistic types (“Every third cottage in the place has an alien in it”) and there is a lovely edge of awareness that the Americanisation of England is well and truly underway. So when Miss Fitch notes that “‘any American pays a girl attentions. It is a conditioned reflex. As automatic as breathing.’” it is tinged with both regret and delight.
It could be said too that ‘To Love And Be Wise’ is a prescient study in gender identity and that it continues to develop the theme of women’s position in the post-war society that were broached in ‘The Franchise Affair’. As with ‘The Franchise Affair’ it can be difficult to pin down Tey’s stance on feminism as her characters often suggest either an ambivalence or a coagulation of conflicted opinions. Reflecting on a piece of cross-stitch crafted by one of the characters, Tey has Grant note: “What a lot of leisure women seemed to have had once. Now they had everything in cans and had no leisure at all. But no, it wasn’t that, of course. It was that they didn’t spend their leisure making texts in coloured wools any more. They went to see Danny Minsky and laughed themselves sick for one-and-tuppence, and if you asked him it was a better way of recovering from the day’s work than making meaningless patterns in purple cross-stitch.” Nor can Tey resist a little self-indulgence in metafiction. She may not break the fourth wall as extravagantly as Edmund Crispin, for example, but a closing comment of “‘You mistook your vocation, Grant. You’re a very good detective, but as a writer of detective fiction you’d make a fortune.’” is as delicious as any other author working in the field.
‘To Love And Be Wise’ then may not be regarded as a particularly precious jewel in Tey’s crown, but it’s still undeniably entertaining and is an essential piece of the puzzle that leads to the brilliance of ‘The Daughter Of Time’, the book that topped the aforementioned British Crime Writers’ Association list of 100 Best Crime Novels back in 1990.
As is the nature of such things, the list itself is a contentious one, not least for the inclusion of books that one might argue belong in the Spy Thriller genre rather than Crime. Defining the boundaries of a genre is always a humorous exercise of course. Personally I’d probably let Le Carré sneak into Crime, but only with his early books, whilst drawing the line at Fleming and Buchan. And much as I love Eric Ambler’s books, I still file him distinctly in my Espionage Thriller shelves. As for Alistair MacLean? Terrific populist thriller writer, but ‘Guns Of Navarone’ as a Crime Novel? I’ll take a lot of convincing. Still, looking on the bright side, if including espionage and war thrillers into the list allows Geoffrey Household’s peerless ‘Rogue Male’ to make it into the top 15 then perhaps it is a blurring of boundaries that is worth those arguments; fleetingly enjoyable and ultimately pointless as they might be.
There would inevitably be arguments over those titles ‘legitimately’ in the list too. Me, I’m not much keen on anything written prior to 1914, which means that whilst I appreciate the importance of Wilkie Collins as a foundation layer for the genre, the books themselves leave me colder than a February night lost in a Cornish mizzle. Similarly, the overworked tedium of Erskine Childers’ 1903 effort ‘Riddle Of The Sands’ is lucky to have only just crept into the list at 93, whilst E.C. Bentley’s ‘Trent’s Last Case’ from a decade later features only at 34, appearing to have lost, by 1990, some of the appeal it once held for Crime novelists in the Golden Age when it was very much seen as the defining moment in kicking off the party, as it were. I remember feeling distinctly underwhelmed when I read it myself some years ago, the more so as it came after gleefully devouring Sayers and Allingham. Naturally, as with Collins, I grant ‘Trent’s Last Case’ a degree of appreciation as being Of Historical Significance, but whilst it’s a diverting enough read, there are many, many more books that have brought me more pleasure.
All of which is a prolonged means of arriving back to the top of the list and wondering if ‘The Daughter Of Time’ really does deserve its place ahead of Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’. The obvious answer is yes and/or no. This is a cop out of course, predicated largely on the fact that I find it very difficult to compare British and American crime/detective novels. It has always felt to me that they are very different beasts, each fired through with unique flavours (or, indeed, flavors) lent by different ingredients. Similarities exist, of course, but it’s like comparing a cask strength sour mash bourbon with a 41% Speyside dram finished in Pedro Ximenez casks. Or, to extend the analogy, what about throwing in some delicious Calvados, for the lack of any Simenon in the list is surely the biggest travesty of all? I’d have something by Léo Malet in there too, for what it’s worth, and incidentally, it’s a travesty too that his Nestor Burma books have not been reissued in English translations since the early 1990s.
Regardless of arguments about what is and who isn’t featured on that 1990 list, however, it is fair to say that ‘The Daughter Of Time’ should be at, or near the top, for it really is an astonishing novel that effortlessly blends experimentation with entertaining readability. Tey notably saw her detective novels as being less intellectually worthy than her other writing (a dozen one-act plays, another dozen full-length plays and three non-genre novels under the name of Gordon Daviot), famously calling the Grant novels her ‘knitting’. There is certainly a sense that perhaps Tey used her experience as a playwright to structure ‘The Daughter Of Time’ around a static setting, for it is easy to visualise the book as a stage set with Inspector Grant alone in his hospital bed. Occasional visitors drift in and out, but the majority of the ‘action’ is Grant’s interrogation of texts to determine ‘truth’ from ‘fiction’. This interest in mediated information is a common thread to a greater or lesser degree in all of Tey’s novels, but it feels as though it reaches its ultimate and perhaps purest form here, as there is literally no other centre of narrative action other than the hospital room and Grant’s thought processes. This central theme that circles around the deceit of historical accuracy is naturally what gives ‘The Daughter of Time’ its ageless quality. Reading the book in 2022 whilst war rages in Europe is unnerving, although Grant’s observation that “A frisson of horror may go down one’s spine at wholesale destruction but one’s heart stays unmoved. A thousand people drowned in floods in China are news: a solitary child drowned in a pond is tragedy” is perhaps slightly less accurate than in a period of ‘peace’. Whether this says more about human nature or the power of media, however, I’m not sure. Then there is another startlingly modern moment where Inspector Grant notes that “As far as he, Alan Grant, was concerned Thomas More was washed out, cancelled, deleted”. To see such words used specifically in such a context back in 1950 is quite startling. There is Nothing New and all that.
There are solid arguments to be made for ‘The Daughter Of Time’ being the prototype for the Historical Crime Novel and the Cold Case sub-genre, but of course the key pleasure to be derived from the book is that whilst it may anticipate both of these it is deliciously free of any preconceptions of what those kinds of texts should look like. Most critically, whilst Tey elegantly conjures The Past, she does so without any clumsy reliance on Brand Names and tedious description of details that show how carefully she might have Done Her Research. Instead, the conjuring of place and time occurs almost as a series of glancing touches, momentary exposures that reveal the ghosts of impermanence. There is a glorious moment where Grant notes, whilst meditating on the/his past that “He had forgotten the excitement of transfers. That wonderfully satisfying moment when you began the peeling-off and saw that it was coming perfectly. The adult world held few such gratifications.” Quite apart from the shared memory of a childhood delight in the things themselves, it’s the metaphor of the transfer as a process of unveiling The Picture that resonates so strongly. Elements of narrative coalesce into the unveiling of The Moment, whose immediate clarity is so exciting and yet immediately begins to fade just as knowledge and memory erase themselves in our consciousness.
Certainly Inspector Grant gets an enormous amount of enjoyment unearthing the ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’ behind Richard III and the case of the Princes In The Tower and Tey expertly avoids the potential for a somewhat dry expose by introducing a few marvellously sketched supporting characters, all of whom appear to be referred to solely as either surnames or nicknames. These characters allow Tey to playfully engage in a range of observations, not least an extended rant about the Covenanters from Tey’s Scottish past. Unfavourably compared to the I.R.A., they are described as “A small irreconcilable minority, and as bloodthirsty a crowd as ever disgraced a Christian nation.” It’s harsh stuff, but it does neatly puncture any romantic notions of them as oppressed outsiders. Then there is a great take on how “‘Cromwell started that inverted snobbery from which we are all suffering today. “I’m a plain man, I am; no nonsense about me.” And no manners, grace, or generosity, either.’” Classic. Best of all though is the throwaway line where Grant is told he is “about as much use to a girl as a last year’s Vogue.” Ouch.
So yes, ‘The Daughter Of Time’ is a book about challenging preconceptions and accepted truth, but it is far too self-aware to be either preachy or abstruse. It is instead humorous, illuminating, erudite and endlessly entertaining; as marvellously rewarding in 2022 as it must have felt in 1950 or will at any point in the future.
It is of course a tragedy that Josephine Tey should die at the age of 55, leaving ‘The Daughter Of Time’ as a fitting memorial. Yet the posthumously published ‘The Singing Sands’ certainly suggests that her Inspector Grant series could have rewarded us with more magnificent books. ‘The Singing Sands’ turns on another moment of historical investigation, this one rooted in the exploration of legend and reality in ‘The City of The Pillars’, lost in the Rub Al Khali. It may be a neat historical thread that weaves through the book, but in reality the book is another terrific return to more traditional structure, much as ‘To Love And Be Wise’ was after ‘The Franchise Affair’. That structure allows Tey to more physically visit landscapes, and her descriptions of the Scottish highlands and the Western Isles are marvellously evocative. Tey’s Scottish roots are certainly in evidence in ‘The Singing Sands’ but her national pride is tempered by a self-awareness that is admirable as she notes that “The quality of Scottishness was a highly concentrated essence, and should always be diluted. As an ingredient it was admirable; neat, it was as abominable as ammonia.” Quite.
Difficult to read without the penetrating knowledge that Tey must have been writing these words in the final months of terminal liver cancer, the book, whilst hardly wallowing in gloom, nevertheless allows Inspector Grant (and Tey) to explore the dark realm of mental health. Tey sensitively captures the feelings of anxiety experienced by Grant as he struggles to retain some semblance of ‘normal’, whilst simultaneously acknowledging that such notions of ‘normalcy’ are fluid at best. Grant’s immersion in the past, his desire to physically move, to Work Through/Out the issues feel remarkably Modern and another example of Tey’s remarkable ability in her post-WW2 work to be both Of The Time and ageless. She’s terrific at exposing the mythology of City vs Country too, noting that “‘Only people who live in towns are fresh-air fiends. Country people like a nice fug as a change from unlimited out-of-doors.’”, whilst there is a pointed dig at the enthusiasm shown by anthropological explorers ‘discovering’ the culture of the Isles: “Except for the delight of the people themselves in the thing, it was a sufficiently dull affair. The songs were musically negligible; some of them deplorable. If this was the kind of thing that people came to the Hebrides to ‘gather’, then they were hardly worth the gathering.” Quite, again.
And, again, there is a return to Tey’s fascination with media, as Grant notes resignedly in the opening pages that “It was yesterday’s paper, but it might equally be last year’s or next month’s. The headlines would for ever be the ones that he was looking at now: the Cabinet row, the dead body of the blonde in Maida Vale, the Customs prosecution, the hold-up, the arrival of an American actor, the street accident.” Much later he revisits this theme, noting that “Every day I swear that never again will I read a daily paper, and every morning there is the blasted thing lying waiting for me to open it and every morning I open it. It upsets my digestive juices, and hardens my arteries, and my face falls with a thud… but I have to have my daily dose of poison.” Substitute ‘Twitter’ or ‘Facebook’ for ‘daily paper’ and the phrases resonate with alarming accuracy in the present day. It’s as if humanity has learned nothing in the intervening 70 years.
I’m not much of a one for revisiting books on an even irregular basis. There are always new things to unearth, after all, even (especially) if they are old. But with Josephine Tey I suspect that ‘The Franchise Affair’ and ‘The Daughter Of Time’ at the very least will buck that trend in the years to come. I’m almost looking forward to it already.