Authors: Josephine Tey
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ystery readers who have never encountered Josephine Tey are in for a delicious treat. Tey belonged to the Golden Age of British crime writing (roughly speaking, 1920-1950), and her place in the pantheon of mystery writers is unassailable.
Josephine Tey (1896 or '97â1952) is a writer who lives by her works alone. Nobody seems to know anything much about her life, in spite of her successful career in the theater, and nobody seems to care. The steady and sustained sale of her novels in the forty-odd years since her death is due to the books themselves, which have proved to have an enduring appeal. And I would hazard the guess that her readers' attitude toward her is different from their attitude toward other classic crime writers: they regard her with love. They give to their favorite Tey novel what they once gave to their favorite books of childhood, to
The Wind in the Willows, Little Women
, or whatever: unconditional enthusiasm.
This strong bond between novelist and reader is based on trustâtrust in someone who is not only a first-rate storyteller
but one who is not content with a formula. Tey, in her best books, seeks to tell different sorts of story, in different ways. This marks her off from the usual purveyors of puzzle-plots, brilliant though they often are. Indeed, in her more straightforward detective stories Josephine Tey often reveals a sort of impatience with the rules and conventions of the whodunit. In
A Shilling for Candles
, for example, two of the three plot strands are unraveled with information that is either not given readers at the time the detective gets it or only revealed just before the unmasking of the criminal. She was, in other words, not interested enough in that kind of game, and preferred to play other, more varied sports.
Three of her novels occupy that hinterlandâoften uneasy, but not in her handsâbetween the crime novel and the “novel proper.” They all have crime at their heart, but they are as far as possible from the “body in the library” formula. Impersonation has been at the heart of many detective stories, but it has seldom carried the emotional charge of
, and our sympathies are never in a mere puzzle so skillfully and so surprisingly manipulated.
The Daughter of Time
is an almost unrepeatable success (a historical mystery reanimated and investigated by present-day inquirers), and it has aroused a whole new interest in what previously seemed a dusty and rather sordid period of English historyâthe reign of King Richard III and the murder of the Princes in the Tower.
The Franchise Affair
also has a basis in fact (an eighteenth-century case in which a maid charged her employers with abduction and mistreatment), but in her hands it becomes a sort of parable of the middle class at bay.
Coming at the tail end of the Golden Age of crime fiction, Tey does not escape some of the less attractive attitudes of her contemporaries: anti-Semitism, contempt for the working class, a deep uneasiness about any enthusiasm (for example, Scottish nationalism) that, to her, smacks of crankiness. If Agatha Christie's “Anthony Astor” in
Three Act Tragedy
is indeed a hit at Tey, then
Christie targets Tey's weaknesses squarely when she talks about “her spiritual homeâa boardinghouse in Bournemouth,” with the implication of dreary respectability and conventionality.
But that is to seize on the inessentials and to ignore the essence: Josephine Tey's brilliant storytelling; her varied, loving characterization; above all, her control of reader sympathies. These are evident in all her novels, whether whodunits or more unconventional structures. If Ngaio Marsh or Christie had died as young as Tey, we would have a good idea of what they could have gone on writing. We can guess that Tey would have written several more whodunits, but
she would have written is beyond our guesswork. That in itself is her best tribute.
is the author of more than thirty crime novels, including, most recently,
, and a collection of short stories,
The Habit of Widowhood
. A seven-time Edgar nominee and winner of the Anthony, Agatha, Macavity, and Nero Wolfe awards, he lives in Leeds, England.
t was four o'clock of a spring evening; and Robert Blair was thinking of going home.
The office would not shut until five, of course. But when you are the only Blair, of Blair, Hayward, and Bennet, you go home when you think you will. And when your business is mostly wills, conveyancing, and investments your services are in small demand in the late afternoon. And when you live in Milford, where the last post goes out at 3:45, the day loses whatever momentum it ever had long before four o'clock.
It was not even likely that his telephone would ring. His golfing cronies would by now be somewhere between the fourteenth and the sixteenth hole. No one would ask him to dinner, because in Milford invitations to dinner are still written by hand and sent through the post. And Aunt Lin would not ring up and ask him to call for the fish on his way home, because this was her bi-weekly afternoon at the cinema, and she would at the moment be only twenty minutes gone with feature, so to speak.
So he sat there, in the lazy atmosphere of a spring evening in a little market town, staring at the last patch of sunlight on his desk (the mahogany desk with the brass inlay that his grandfather had scandalised the family by bringing home from Paris) and thought about going home. In the patch of sunlight was his tea-tray; and it was typical of Blair, Hayward, and Bennet that
tea was no affair of a japanned tin tray and a kitchen cup. At 3:50 exactly on every working day Miss Tuff bore into his office a lacquer tray covered with a fair white cloth and bearing a cup of tea in blue-patterned china, and, on a plate to match, two biscuits; petit-beurre Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, digestive Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Looking at it now, idly, he thought how much it represented the continuity of Blair, Hayward, and Bennet. The china he could remember as long as he could remember anything. The tray had been used when he was very small by the cook at home to take the bread in from the baker, and had been rescued by his young mother and brought to the office to bear the blue-patterned cups. The cloth had come years later with the advent of Miss Tuff. Miss Tuff was a war-time product; the first woman who had ever sat at a desk in a respectable solicitor's in Milford. A whole revolution Miss Tuff was in her single gawky thin earnest person. But the firm had survived the revolution with hardly a jolt, and now, nearly a quarter of a century later, it was inconceivable that thin grey dignified Miss Tuff had ever been a sensation. Indeed her only disturbance of the immemorial routine was the introduction of the tray-cloth. In Miss Tuff's home no meal was ever put straight on to a tray; if it comes to that, no cakes were ever put straight on to a plate; a tray cloth or a doyley must intervene. So Miss Tuff had looked askance at the bare tray. She had, moreover, considered the lacquered pattern distracting, unappetising, and “queer.” So one day she had brought a cloth from home; decent, plain, and white, as befitted something that was to be eaten off of. And Robert's father, who had liked the lacquer tray, looked at the clean white cloth and was touched by young Miss Tuff's identification of herself with the firm's interests, and the cloth had stayed, and was now as much a part of the firm's life as the deed-boxes, and the brass plate, and Mr. Heseltine's annual cold.
It was when his eyes rested on the blue plate where the biscuits
had been that Robert experienced that odd sensation in his chest again. The sensation had nothing to do with the two digestive biscuits; at least, not physically. It had to do with the inevitability of the biscuit routine; the placid certainty that it would be digestive on a Thursday and petit-beurre on a Monday. Until the last year or so, he had found no fault with certainty or placidity. He had never wanted any other life but this: this quiet friendly life in the place where he had grown up. He still did not want any other. But once or twice lately an odd, alien thought had crossed his mind; irrelevant and unbidden. As nearly as it could be put into words it was: “This is all you are ever going to have.” And with the thought would come that moment's constriction in his chest. Almost a panic reaction; like the heart-squeezing that remembering a dentist appointment would cause in his ten-year-old breast.
This annoyed and puzzled Robert; who considered himself a happy and fortunate person, and adult at that. Why should this foreign thought thrust itself on him and cause that dismayed tightening under his ribs? What had his life lacked that a man might be supposed to miss?
But he could have married if he had wanted to. At least he supposed he could; there were a great many unattached females in the district, and they showed no signs of disliking him.
A devoted mother?
But what greater devotion could a mother have given him than Aunt Lin provided; dear doting Aunt Lin.
What had he ever wanted that he could not buy? And if that wasn't riches he didn't know what was.
An exciting life?
But he had never wanted excitement. No greater excitement, that is, than was provided by a day's hunting or being all-square at the sixteenth.
Why the “This is all you are ever going to have” thought?
Perhaps, he thought, sitting staring at the blue plate where the biscuits had been, it was just that Childhood's attitude of something-wonderful-tomorrow persisted subconsciously in a man as long as it was capable of realisation, and it was only after forty, when it became unlikely of fulfillment, that it obtruded itself into conscious thought; a lost piece of childhood crying for attention.
Certainly he, Robert Blair, hoped very heartily that his life would go on being what it was until he died. He had known since his schooldays that he would go into the firm and one day succeed his father; and he had looked with good-natured pity on boys who had no niche in life ready-made for them; who had no Milford, full of friends and memories, waiting for them; no part in English continuity as was provided by Blair, Hayward, and Bennet.
There was no Hayward in the firm nowadays; there had not been one since 1843; but a young sprig of the Bennets was occupying the back room at this moment. Occupying was the operative word, since it was very unlikely that he was doing any work; his chief interest in life being to write poems of an originality so pristine that only Nevil himself could understand them. Robert deplored the poems but condoned the idleness, since he could not forget that when he had occupied that same room he had spent his time practising mashie shots into the leather arm-chair.