Golden Age of Mystery #1: Josephine Tey

OK, I picked Tey as the subject for my first entry because of my soft spot for her given name…but she is my favorite author amongst the mystery authors I’ve read so far who might be considered ‘Golden Age”. This is in no small degree because her primary detective, Alan Grant, does NOT remind me of Peter Wimsey1. She didn’t write many mysteries, preferring to work on stage productions and playwriting, and her books aren’t quite the mysteries that other writers of that era produce. They do involve a dead body as a rule, but the books don’t all center on the crime involved in producing the body; rather they strike me as paying more attention to the relationships between and personalities of the characters. While she puts a great deal of herself in her books–Miss Pym comes to visit her friend, who is headmistress at a ‘physical training’ school for young women, and finds a mystery there–there isn’t much of what I’d call Mary Sueism. Indeed, in To Love and Be Wise, she does a more than slightly vicious sendup of the whole arts scene, lampooning both the stage and print arts in which she worked.

She’s perhaps best known today for Daughter of Time, in which her detective Grant, laid up in hospital with a broken leg, is forced to occupy himself with an investigation he can do while flat on his back: was Richard III in fact the monster we all think he is, based on Holinshed and Shakespeare? Tey is an avowed Richardian, true, but in her defense, it’s not 100% clear that Richard DID the Deed, as far as I recall. In this case, the book is more about how to do historical research than about Richard’s guilt or innocence, and judging the impartiality of the sources one is using. Having read all her books (they’re all back in print for the time being), this isn’t the one I like best; at the moment I’m torn between Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair.

In Brat Farrar2, Tey makes clear that the titular character is NOT the missing Patrick Ashby; he himself tells us in the first few pages of the book. The real questions here are: he’s clearly a close relative of the family, or he wouldn’t resemble Patrick closely enough to make the imposture at all plausible but who is he? and will he get away with the masquerade? what will the family do when they find out? and of course lastly, what really did happen to Patrick? In The Franchise Affair, a young girl (just sixteen) appears on the doorstep of a middle aged spinster and her acerbic widowed mother, claiming the two held her captive for a month and beat her when she refused to do their mending. Her story and her manner are just a trifle too disingenuous for the tastes of the solicitor the two older women call upon for help, but the question remains: who’s right, the lawyer or the press (and with it popular opinion)? In the face of an ambiguous case, boiling down at the beginning purely to “She said, they said” with no evidence to support or disprove the case against the two other than Betty Kane’s story, Blair manages to turf out the handful of witnesses who can prove where Betty Kane did spend that month. This has a happy ending all round, with a case of True Love Found in Middle Age, or another case of ‘the story wasn’t actually about the mystery after all’.

Now, off to Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham…

Golden Age of Mystery Authors
Father Knox’s Ten CommandmentsS.S. van Dine’s Twenty Rules
(In fairness, many well written mysteries do break both van Dine’s and Knox’s rules…I would hazard a guess that both authors meant “Don’t use hackneyed overused plot tropes.” rather than intending these as Unbreakable Rules of Nature.)

1or why doing readers advisory is hard: If I personally wanted to read about someone who reminded me of Bertie Wooster, I’d read something by P.G. Wodehouse.
2The title character, masquerading as the missing twin Patrick, comes back to the family manor on the eve of the 21st birthday of the surviving twin, Simon, thus doing Simon out of his inheritance.


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