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Second Reading

Josephine Tey, Sleuthing Into The Mystery of History

By Jonathan Yardley
Wednesday, March 12, 2003; Page C01

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

In a smart, witty novel called "Miss Pym Disposes," an actor invites a woman to attend a performance of Shakespeare's "Richard III," with himself in the title role. The woman has been rebuffing his bumbling advances for some time, but that isn't the only reason why she says no. "Richard III," she says, is "a criminal libel on a fine man, a blatant piece of political propaganda, and an extremely silly play."

Terence Rigby and Ian McKellen in a 1992 production of Shakespeare's "Richard III," which paints a picture of a king surpassingly evil. (John Haynes)

That novel was published in 1949 but its author, Josephine Tey, scarcely had written her last word on the subject. Three years later she published "The Daughter of Time," the entirety of which is devoted to a defense of the king whom Shakespeare called "this poisonous bunch-backed toad," "that foul defacer of God's handiwork" and -- just to leave no doubt -- "this carnal cur." The novel was an immediate success and has remained steadily in print for more than half a century, praised or damned depending on where one stands in the unending debate over Richard III -- but loved as a book of singular originality, ingenuity and humanity.

At least technically the novel is a mystery. Its protagonist -- unless one considers that to be Richard himself -- is Alan Grant, the Scotland Yard inspector around whom many of Tey's novels revolve. The suspense does indeed mount, as the cliche goes, with a fair number of unexpected twists along the way; Tey was good at that. But "The Daughter of Time" deserves to be read as a work of literate (even literary) fiction, not just as a detective story. As such, it stands up surpassingly well.

"The Daughter of Time" is by far the best known of Tey's novels, but many of her others are equally admirable. She is a strange and fascinating case, a recluse about whom little is known, to the extent that no photographs of her are believed to have survived, if indeed any existed in the first place. She was born Elizabeth MacKintosh in 1896 or 1897 in Scotland, a place that figures significantly in many of her books, most notably "The Man in the Queue" and "The Singing Sands"; she loved her native land and its landscape, admired and was amused by its plain-spoken, cantankerous natives, and viewed its tangled history with both pride and asperity.

We know that she found her way as a young woman to the Anstey Physical Training College in Birmingham; she became a physical education instructor, but perhaps the most important effect of this expertise is that it enabled her to set "Miss Pym Disposes" in a similar institution and gave Tey a knowledge of medical matters that served her well when it came to describing injuries, corpses and other matters essential to detective fiction.

From teaching she worked her way into writing, which she seems to have loved from early youth. She began to publish novels under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot. The first, "The Man in the Queue," was published in 1929 and introduced Alan Grant, who possessed not merely the requisite assets for detective work -- "devotion to duty and a good supply of brains and courage" -- but also a most un-policeman-like style and manner:

"Some years before, Grant had inherited a considerable legacy -- a legacy sufficient to permit him to retire into idle nonentity if such had been his desire. But Grant loved his work even when he swore and called it a dog's life, and the legacy had been used only to smooth and embroider life. . . . It was owing entirely to the legacy, therefore, that Grant was an habitué of so exclusive an eating-place [in London] as Laurent's, and -- a much more astonishing and impressive fact -- a pet of the head waiter's. Only five persons in Europe are pets of Laurent's head waiter, and Grant was thoroughly conscious of the honor, and thoroughly sensible of the reason."

Gordon Daviot soon became the author of plays as well as mysteries. Some of these appeared under excessively fey titles -- "Lady Charing Is Cross," "The Pomp of Mr. Pomfret" -- and were not especially successful, but her first, "Richard of Bordeaux," about Richard the Second, played on the West End for a year. It was, John Gielgud writes in his memoirs, his own "first . . . success as a director." He remembered the play, and its author, fondly: "Shakespeare's Richard, though a wonderful part for an actor, has no humor and can be monotonously lyrical -- Daviot's play was amusing and its pacifist angle had a great appeal when it was produced."

Precisely what MacKintosh/Daviot did during the Second World War is unclear -- the war scarcely figures in her writing -- but after it ended she enjoyed a period of extraordinary productivity. Between 1947 and 1952 she published -- now as Josephine Tey -- "Miss Pym Disposes," "The Franchise Affair," "Brat Farrar," "To Love and Be Wise," "The Daughter of Time" and "The Singing Sands," the manuscript of this last having been discovered not long after her death in early 1952. Each of the six seems as fresh today as it must have when it first appeared: elegantly written, populated with interesting and sometimes eccentric characters, witty but also laugh-out-loud funny, engaged with far deeper themes and ideas than one is accustomed to encounter in most mystery novels.

Certainly that is true of "The Daughter of Time." Its title is taken from an "old proverb" not to be found in any dictionary of quotations in my own library -- "Truth is the daughter of time" -- and its central preoccupation is the theme suggested by that proverb: the elusiveness of historical truth. On its face the novel is a brief for Richard III's defense, but more deeply it is an inquiry into how history is written and for what purposes. As such it is unlikely to find favor with many practitioners of that trade, for Tey, speaking through Grant and other characters, has little good to say about historians.

Today's American reader is likely to know little or nothing about the case of Richard III or to be prejudiced against him by Shakespeare. The first edition of the play appeared in 1597 and within five years "had become part of popular mythology" in England, according to E.A.J. Honigmann's useful introduction to the New Penguin Shakespeare edition of "Richard III."

The portrait painted by Shakespeare is almost without exception malicious. The Richard who emerges in this play is surpassingly evil. He does have a conscience, and as the drama winds toward its bloody conclusion he becomes plagued by it, but mainly he is ferociously ambitious and wholly unscrupulous in pursuit of that ambition: the throne occupied by his elder brother, Edward IV. Richard loves Edward, even venerates him, but upon the king's sudden death Richard determines to usurp the throne. This requires doing away with his brother George, Duke of Clarence; and then having Edward's two allegedly illegitimate young sons put to death.

The legendary, infamous murder of the princes in the Tower of London is carried out by two assassins. At once Richard begins plotting his next cruel move, but in the end he is thwarted, and killed, by Henry, Earl of Richmond, at Bosworth Field.

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