After burning through all the Nancy Drews in the Seldovia Public Library at age eight, I didn't read mysteries much. My mother loved crime novels, especially those written by British authors like Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Agatha Christie. I preferred Robert Heinlein and Nevil Shute and Thomas B. Costain. I liked buckle and swash in my reading, not tea and manners, and it took her twenty-one years of patient persistence to get me to read Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time.
A policeman is confined to a hospital bed, literally unable to sit upright, and from that bed he solves a double homicide committed four hundred years before. The crime scene is sixteen generations out of date, there is no surviving forensic evidence, and the chroniclers of the time only prospered through patronage, which could and did influence their reporting.
The trip-wire tension of the plot is an extraordinary achievement given that the facts of the case have been known for over four centuries. Tey takes the murder of the Princes in the Tower as her text, and in a completely convincing exercise of revisionist history, exonerates Richard III, the man history has judged guilty of the crime.
From Tey's intelligent, charming protagonist, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, to the much-maligned Richard III himself the characterization is seductive and masterful. There is elegant actress Marta Hallard with "her best lower-register Electra voice," and Marta's "woolly lamb" Brent Carradine who "said goodnight in a quiet smothered way, and ambled out of the room followed by the sweeping skirts of his topcoat," and Sergeant Williams, "large and pink and scrubbed-looking," and Mrs. Tinker, whose "homely face appeared in the aperture surmounted by her still more homely and historic hat."
And then there are the dead-on and frequently devastating sidelights that have nothing to do with plot and everything to do with condition and culture, as in this description of the pile of books Grant's friends have brought him in hospital:
...the public talked about 'a new Silas Weekly' or 'a new Lavinia Fitch' exactly as they talked about 'a new brick' or 'a new hairbrush.'...Their interest was not in the book but in its newness. They knew quite well what the book would be like.
Ouch. After that, I won't even mention Tey's character assassinations of Mary, Queen of Scots and Sir Thomas More.
Reading The Daughter of Time was my epiphany. In that moment, I realized you could do anything in crime fiction, so long as a) there was a mystery, and b) by the end of the book that mystery was solved. The Daughter of Time started me down the road that led to Kate Shugak and Liam Campbell, and I will be forever grateful to my mother and Josephine Tey for the nudge.
Are you a Josephine Tey fan?