Josephine Tey Essay - Critical Essays

Elizabeth Mackintosh


Josephine Tey’s first detective novel, The Man in the Queue (1929), introduced Alan Grant of Scotland Yard. Grant is a man with considerable style. As later novels indicate, he is regarded as somewhat suspect at the Yard because of his “flair.” He might be just a bit too intelligent. His superiors fear that his wit may cause him to be too ingenious, to make too much of certain evidence with his fancy interpretations. Indeed, in The Man in the Queue, Grant’s brilliance almost does lead him to the wrong conclusion. Some reviewers thought that Tey spent too much time conveying the mental processes of her detective. A greater fault of her first detective novel, however, is the stabbing of the man in the queue—which is done in public in a crowded line of people. Reviewers wondered why the man did not cry out. None of Tey’s subsequent detective novels depends on gimmickry, however, and with the exception of The Daughter of Time (1951), Grant’s thoughts are not the focus of the narrative.

The Man in the Queue also introduced Grant’s sidekick, Sergeant Williams. As in the classic detective story, Williams plays a kind of Dr. Watson to Grant’s Sherlock Holmes. Grant, however, is much more appreciative of Williams, his detail man, than Holmes is of Watson. Grant relies on Williams for meticulous investigations and often goes over the details to be sure that he (Grant) has not missed anything. In other words, Williams is no mere sounding board, even if he worships Grant as his hero.

Brat Farrar

Except for A Shilling for Candles (1936), Tey wrote no Alan Grant novels in the 1930’s, as though to prevent him from dominating her fiction. Brat Farrar (1949) is about an impostor who claims to be the heir to a huge family fortune. The heir is presumed to have committed suicide as a young boy, although the boy’s body was never found. In a riveting narrative, Tey achieves the astonishing feat of getting readers to identify with the impostor, Brat Farrar, while deepening the mystery of how the heir actually met his death. As in several other novels, she raises intriguing questions about human identity, about how human beings take on roles that can both obscure and reveal reality.

To Love and Be Wise

Similarly, in To Love and Be Wise, an Alan Grant novel, the question at first seems to be what happened to Leslie Searle, an American photographer who has befriended an English family. He disappears on an outing with Walter Whitmore, an English radio personality who is suspected of doing away with Searle because of Searle’s involvement with Whitmore’s fiancée. By the time Grant becomes deeply involved in the case, the novel is half over and the reader’s interest is increasingly focused on exactly who Leslie Searle was. How is it that he insinuated himself into the lives of an English family? What was there about him that made him so appealing? Grant has to pursue these questions before finally realizing that Leslie Searle is not the victim but the perpetrator of a crime.

The Daughter of Time

The most celebrated Alan Grant novel is The Daughter of Time. Grant is laid up with an injury in the hospital. He asks his close friend, the actress Martha Hallard (another regular character in the Grant series), to bring him a set of prints. Among other things, Hallard supplies him with a print of the portrait of Richard III that is on display at the National Gallery in London. Grant is stunned that Richard’s keenly intelligent and compassionate face is nothing like the villain portrayed by Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More. With the assistance of an American student, Grant engages in a full-scale research project to exonerate Richard III from the charge of murdering the princes in the Tower and of being the most villainous king in English history.

The Daughter of Time has been extravagantly praised as a tour de force, a unique combination of the detective story and a work of history. It has also been disdained as a prejudiced book that libels historians for supposedly blackening Richard’s name based on insufficient or biased evidence. It is true that Tey does not offer all the evidence that has been used to confirm Richard’s guilt. Worse, the novel has internal flaws....

(The entire section is 1780 words.)