What a fascinatingly odd novel! The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey, has been described as both one of the best detective stories and one of the best historical novels of all time. I find this surprising, since it’s not actually historical fiction and all the detecting takes a very unusual format – which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. I had actually not heard of it until All About Agatha picked it as their Patreon book club book for an upcoming episode, but was immediately intrigued by the premise. Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant (a recurring Tey character) finds himself stuck in bed recovering from a broken leg and an injured back, and one of his friends suggests that he entertains himself by researching an historical mystery. He chooses to investigate Richard III’s alleged crime of having killed the Princes in the Tower. I was accidentally spoilt for his conclusion before I picked up the book, having stumbled across it when I was trying to buy a copy, but nonetheless it was very worth reading.

Richard III, painted by unknown artist c1510-40

I didn’t come into this novel with much awareness of Richard III. My pre-Victoria knowledge of the kings and queens of the UK is patchy, to say the least. My school took an approach to history teaching that emphasised analysis over memorisation. I could tell you a lot about contributing factors to the Peasants’ Revolt, or why Elizabeth I expanded the role of the Privy Council, but there are centuries-long holes in my knowledge of dates and names. This is a much more compelling way to teach than rote learning, and history was one of my favourite subjects. It does, however, mean I don’t have the same level of background knowledge as every single character in this book. They all seem to have learnt the same few anecdotes at school, have the succession order memorised etc. I suspect that, if I’d come into this with the level of knowledge that Tey assumed of her readers, I might have got more out of it. When I listen to the Patreon episode, I’ll be interested to hear what the two American hosts make of it. Presumably US schools focus more on US history, so I guess they will be coming in with even less knowledge than I did. Though of course the Shakespeare play might negate some of that.

It’s also very much a book of its time. I don’t mean in the sense of values dissonance – actually there’s very little of that, given that it was published in 1951 – but in the way the main character thinks. Grant begins investigating the issue of Richard III’s crimes because he is insistant that, as a detective inspector, he can recognise the face of a guilty man. The whole novel is hung around this premise, and nobody really questions it. We know now, much more than we did in the fifties, how first impressions are subject to all kinds of biases – everything from accidental stereotyping to being subconsciously reminded of someone who was rude to us once on a train. I doubt that a crime novelist writing now would stake so much of the initial premise on the idea that a portrait would be an indication of guilt or innocence. This is especially the case given that the first known portrait of Richard (above) dates from c1510-40, or at least 25 years after his death! Once the investigation was properly underway, Grant began to look at things like the historical pattern of Richard III’s behaviour and the political machinations that might or might not have led him to murder his nephews. That’s a much more reasonable approach to take, but Tey returned to this flimsy premise often and it stretched my credulity.

It sounds like I’m criticising the book, but I’m not really. Quibbles with the premise aside, I enjoyed it enormously. The question of how history gets written, what makes a source reliable etc – that is a fascinating one, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it addressed in this way before. To do it via the means of a detective novel – wherein the utility of each primary source as evidence to convict is considered – is strikingly original. For example, at one point, Grant has a conversation with another character in which they debate whether contemporary writers with a pro-French or a pro-Tudor bias are more likely to write honestly about Richard III’s character. Other historical myths or anecdotes are mentioned throughout the novel, and their historicity discussed, though none to the same degree as the Princes in the Tower. The Tonypandy Riot of 1910, the deaths of Scottish Covenenters in the seventeenth century, and the various doings of Mary Queen of Scots all come up for discussion, with Grant rather dismissive of anything in the historical record that seems “sentimental”. I suspect that, in this, he’s probably Tey’s avatar. The novel as a whole demonstrates a bit of an authoritarian streak in the way it writes about popular myth – the Tonypandy miners and the Covenenters had it coming to them, in her view. I don’t know enough about either topic to make a judgement, and I think this is another area where better background knowledge would have allowed me to get more out of the novel.

In my view, The Daughter of Time’s reputation is probably based more on its originality than on its writing quality. It’s not badly written, per sae, but it doesn’t sparkle like the best detective writing, and it doesn’t even attempt to build up the atmosphere of the 1400s – that’s not the purpose of the novel. (Though Tey’s dismissal of historical fiction that’s full of “writing forsoothly” tickled me; I too get irritated by that particular style, and will be using that description liberally from now on). The opening chapters have a lovely style, with Tey describing Grant’s hospital room and doing a great job of setting up his mounting frustration with being cooped up. In effect, this is a quarantine novel. It made for interesting reading after over a year of the pandemic. Grant is deprived of entertainment, of his normal job, of his normal friends. He can’t interest himself in any of the novels people have brought him, and there is a great diversion for a couple of pages where Tey describes some of these novels.

The Sweat and the Furrow was Silas Weekley being earthy and spade-conscious all over seven hundred pages. The situation, to judge from the first paragraph, had not materially changed since Silas’ last book: mother lying-in with her eleventh upstairs; father laid-out after his ninth downstairs; eldest son lying to the Government in the cowshed; eldest daughter lying with her lover in the hay-loft; everyone else lying low in the barn. The rain dripped from the thatch, and the manure steamed in the midden. Silas never omitted the manure. It was not Silas’s fault that its steam provided the only up-rising element in the picture. If Silas could have discovered a brand of steam that steamed downwards, Silas would have introduced it.

I mean, doesn’t that perfectly encapsulate a certain type of literature that goes all in for grit and misery, in the mistaken impression that unhappiness is synonymous with literary quality? I’ve never heard a better description of the genre. After the set-up, though, I feel like the style takes a bit of a nosedive. There are whole chapters that are mostly undirected dialogue, which I always struggle to follow. The man Grant asks to do some investigating for him, Brent Carradine, was fleshed out well when first introduced but became a bit flat later on. It often felt like he was there for Grant to talk at, rather than as a character in his own right.

On the plus side, there are some interesting side characters. I particularly liked Grant’s two nurses, whom he nicknames The Midget and The Amazon. (Never has a single sentence more perfectly captured the experience of being a nurse on night shift than this: “I’ve no patience with you,” she said patiently and faded backwards into the gloom). I don’t think I was meant to empathise with them, but having a cranky demanding charge, who keeps asking for progressively weirder things (the loan of an old school book, a decided opinion about Richard III’s face, etc) – it just felt very relatable to me. The atmosphere of the hospital was built up well – which is fortunate, since the whole novel takes place there. Grant’s friend Marta, who suggests this endeavour to him in the first place, is also well-drawn. She’s a glamorous stage actress, trapped in an interminable run of a play she’s not really enjoying, and her visits are real bright spots both for Grant and for the reader. I think it’s quite unusual – especially then, but even now – for a book to feature a close friendship between a man and a woman that has no particular undertones of romance, and I really enjoyed that aspect.

Overall, then, although I am not sure that this novel deserves its reputation as the greatest crime novel of all time (as per the British Crime Writers Association in 1990), it is very much worth reading. It’s certainly original, and what I’ve heard of Tey’s other novels makes me think her books are quite diverse in terms of theme and plot. I hadn’t even finished The Daughter of Time before I had ordered Miss Pym Disposes, a standalone novel I’ve heard good things about. I look forward to making my way through her other works.