on 28 November 2012
I suspect that most people who click on this item will already be acquainted with the work of Josephine Tey; I first read her novels as a teenager, in Pan and Penguin paperback editions which are still stored in our garage but are suffering from a combination of use and age. I decided it was time to think about replacement, and this compilation seemed a good way of achieving this. If you're already a Tey fan, feel free to skip to the final section about production quality, but I've decided to put together a detailed review, if only because the subject matter deserves it.
Elizabeth Mackintosh was born on 25 July 1896 in Inverness, the eldest of the three daughters of Colin Mackintosh, a greengrocer, and his wife Josephine (nee Horne), a former teacher. She was educated at Inverness Royal Academy and subsequently attended Anstey Physical Training College in Birmingham, after which she taught at schools Liverpool, Oban, Eastbourne and Tunbridge Wells. In 1923 she returned to Inverness to look after her dying mother, and subsequently her invalid father. Her earliest published work appeared in magazines in the late 1920s, and her first novels (there were two, one historical and one `criminal') were published in 1929. Her early writing appeared under the nom-de-plume `Gordon Daviot', the name by which she was generally known for the rest of her life. She achieved great success with her play `Richard of Bordeaux' (King Richard II, who reigned from 1377 to 1399). It opened in 1932 and ran for a year; the lead was taken by a young John Gielgud, who remained a lifelong friend. For her second Alan Grant novel, published in 1936, Mackintosh used the nom-de-plume `Josephine Tey', combining her mother's first name with the surname of her English grandmother. Thereafter, all of her crime novels were written as Josephine Tey, though she continued to use the name of Gordon Daviot for plays and historical novels. Her father died in 1950, and she did not long survive him, dying of cancer at her sister's home in Streatham on 13 February 1952. She left her entire estate, including future royalties, to The National Trust.
INSPECTOR ALAN GRANT
There's a dearth of background information in the novels, but it's clear that Grant had a Public School education. He subsequently inherited a very large sum from an aunt, and could thereafter have lived on his private means, but he was unable to contemplate life without his job at Scotland Yard. He is at home among what would now be called the upper middle class, and especially among those involved in theatrical arts, but he has an easy approach which enables him to be accepted in any company. In his professional life, his especial interests are the study of faces and of human nature. He has what his superiors describe as `flair', and this stood him in good stead at a time when forensic science was still in its infancy.
Grant first appears in `The Man in the Queue', published in 1929 under the name of Gordon Daviot, though in later reprints this was changed to Josephine Tey. A popular British actress is giving her farewell performance before leaving for the USA, and outside the theatre her fans have queued four deep for several hours to claim the limited number of unreserved seats. The doors open and the crowd surges forward, but minutes later a patron collapses in front of the box office, with a stiletto protruding from his back. No-one has seen anything suspicious, nor has anyone left the queue. Problems of identity and motivation cause difficulties for Grant. This is probably the least attractive of the novels in the collection, partly because the 1920s setting and language is more than a little alien to the 21st century reader, but mostly because, despite the complexity of the plot, the solution appears rather `out of the blue', whereas in most other novels the plotting is finely calculated and appropriate clues are available.
In `A Shilling for Candles' (1936), a successful film actress is spending time incognito at a secluded cottage somewhere on the Kent coast. Early one morning, her body is discovered at the water's edge; she is dressed for swimming and has clearly drowned, but her fingernails are broken and a button - apparently from an overcoat - is trapped in her hair. So is it murder? If so, an apparently itinerant young man she had recently befriended seems to be a likely suspect, but all the evidence is circumstantial. Grant is uneasy, but few other leads present themselves. Is there a connection with her profession, or are clues to be found in her earlier life? The plot thickens!
By any standards, `The Franchise Affair' (1948) is a classic of crime fiction. It is broadly based on the case of Elizabeth Canning, a cause célèbre of the mid-18th Century, and involves a 15-year-old schoolgirl who, after disappearing for a month, turns up - badly beaten - claiming to have been kidnapped and held prisoner by two women living in a house she subsequently identifies as `The Franchise'. Grant is in charge of the investigation but is merely a supporting player in this novel, the leading character being Robert Blair, a country solicitor, who represents the two accused women and is convinced of their innocence, despite the compelling evidence of the girl's knowledge of the house and its contents. The true facts of the historical case remain in doubt, but by skilful plotting Tey devises an entirely credible series of events which fully explains the apparently inexplicable.
The next Grant novel was `To Love and be Wise' (1950); the title is an adaptation of a quotation from `On Love', a short essay by renaissance philosopher Sir Francis Bacon: "... it was well said, that it is impossible to love and to be wise." Salcott St. Mary is a village which has become popular with the literary and theatrical set. Into their lives comes a young American photographer, who later disappears in mysterious circumstances; the available evidence suggests that he may have drowned in the local and potentially treacherous River Rushmere. As implied by the title, there is a romantic dimension to the tale. Grant has great difficulty in finding useful leads, though the cameo performances by the local intelligentsia keep him busy. Eventually, having to the best of his ability eliminated the impossible, he is obliged to consider the improbable .... . The book was described in a contemporary review as `delightful' and, 60 years later, it is difficult to disagree.
`The Daughter of Time' (1951) is Tey's best-known work; the title is from another Bacon quotation - "Truth is the Daughter of Time, not of Authority" - though similar expressions can be found in much earlier writings; it has much the same meaning as the proverbial "Truth will out!" Grant is obliged to spend several weeks flat on his back in hospital as a result of injuries sustained when he fell into a cellar while chasing a suspect. Sensing his frustration at this incapacity, friends shower him with books and other distractions, amongst which is a copy of a portrait of King Richard III, the notorious hunchbacked monster who murdered the Princes in the Tower - or so those of us of a certain age were taught. Grant becomes obsessed with the portrait and, with the assistance of a friendly young American researcher in the British Museum, devours all the information about Richard III that can be found in the records of the period. Fascinated by the contradictions in these records, Grant applies his professional expertise to the evidence and, with the help of his young friend, demonstrates that Richard had no reason to murder the Princes, and that they were almost certainly alive after Richard's death. He also unearths evidence that Richard was a popular and able King, whose downfall at the hands of the usurping Henry VII was probably facilitated by his habit of pardoning and forgiving those who opposed him. As is acknowledged in the novel, Grant was not the first to reach these conclusions, but `The Daughter of Time' was hugely popular and did a great deal to rehabilitate Richard's reputation in the eyes of the public. It's a fascinating read and really does work well as a detective story.
The final story, `The Singing Sands', was found among Tey's papers after her death, and was published later in 1952. It isn't clear whether she regarded it as ready for publication or as work in progress. Grant is again indisposed, this time by what we would now regard as stress brought on by pressure of work. He suffers from bouts of claustrophobia, and on the advice of his doctor sets off for a month's fishing holiday in the wide open spaces of the Scottish Highlands. He travels (wide awake and claustrophobic) on the overnight sleeper and, on arrival, intervenes when the rather surly conductor becomes over-enthusiastic in his efforts to awaken a sleeping traveller - a young man who proves to be dead. Leaving the local force to attend to the matter, Grant finds that he has inadvertently added a newspaper from the dead man's compartment to his own selection of newspapers, which he was carrying under his arm. He finds, pencilled in the blank `stop press' column, a partially-completed poem, reading "The beasts that talk / The streams that stand / The stones that walk / The singing sand / ...... / ...... / That guard the way / To Paradise. Apparently the author had been unable to think of the fifth and sixth lines. Intrigued, Grant unsuccessfully attempts to make sense of the poem. Later, discovering that an inquest had identified the dead man as a Frenchman from Marseilles, Grant finds himself unable to reconcile this conclusion with either the poem itself or the style of the handwriting in which it was jotted down. He becomes determined to find out the truth. Though Tey's writing is as good as ever, and the developing mystery holds the reader's interest, the plot abruptly changes direction towards the end of the book, so that - as in `The Man in the Queue' - the solution appears pretty much out of the blue. I'd like to think that the manuscript was work in progress; as it stands the novel doesn't quite reach the standard of its predecessors.
Taking an overall view, the quality of Tey's writing can occasionally be variable, but is generally very high. By and large, her prose wears well, though admittedly several words in the novels are no longer in general use; examples include `alienist' (specialist in mental health) and `toper' (excessive drinker or alcoholic). But Tey occupies a very important place in the development of British crime fiction, and every true enthusiast of the genre should be acquainted with her work. Her standing in the genre is illustrated by the result of a poll conducted by the Crime Writers' Association in 1990 to establish the hundred best crime novels ever written. `The Daughter of Time' topped the list, and `The Franchise Affair' was placed at number 11. In a similar poll held in the USA in 1995, despite a natural bias towards US authors, `The Daughter of Time' took fourth place and `The Franchise Affair' appeared at number 81. Both novels demand inclusion in the `must read' list of any discerning devotee of crime writing.
And now we come to the tragic bit - the production quality is truly awful! I believe that Tey's work has been out of copyright since 1 January 2003, so anyone can publish her novels; in this case the publisher is Oxford City Press, an outfit new to me and fairly obviously unrelated to Oxford University Press! The paper quality is quite reasonable, but there's little else about the book to merit approval. This is a hardback with laminated covers and a straight spine - not really acceptable for a book with well over 900 pages; the endpapers of my copy were already cracking away from the spine when I received it. You can view the front and back covers in the Amazon Listing - the front is quite acceptable, but the notes on the back are barely literate and `The Franchise Affair' is inexplicably omitted from the list of novels included.
But it's only when you open the book that you begin to realise how little effort the publisher has expended. Firstly, there is neither introduction nor foreword - no information whatsoever about Josephine Tey and her place in the development of British crime fiction, and nothing at all - not even a publication date - to put the novels into any kind of context. Readers without prior knowledge of Tey's writing are left to work out for themselves the period in which they are set. Secondly, though I can't say with certainty how the book was compiled, it looks as though the publisher hasn't merely taken advantage of the availability of Tey's writing; the typsetting seems to have been lifted from various earlier versions of the novels, electronically processed to ensure consistent typeface and margins, but not otherwise edited. Sometimes this means that words which were originally hyphenated at the end of a line now appear mid-line, but still with the hyphen; examples include w-e've, had-n't and jum-ped; not an insuperable problem, but certainly a distraction. In the case of one of the novels the `original' was apparently a US edition, so the reader not only needs to cope with `smolder', `odor' and `skeptical', but needs to know that in US English `curb' can also mean `kerb'. Worst of all, in the `originals', quoted text (and there's quite a bit of it, especially in `The Singing Sands') was indented from the normal margin, and may well have been in a different typeface; in this volume there is no indentation, but the substantial blank space which created it is still there, though at a different point on each successive line. It's not easy to describe the effect, but it certainly doesn't improve the reading experience. The sad thing is that all of these problems - and others which I haven't specifically mentioned - would have been identified by the most basic editing process, and all of them could have been remedied very easily.
I would describe this book as cheap and nasty, but for the fact that it's far from cheap - hence the title of this review. The six novels, taken together, are worth five stars, but this amateurish compilation is definitely one-star; my rating is an average of the above. I strongly recommend that you look elsewhere. Stick with the current range of Arrow paperbacks - all six novels are available through Amazon at the time of writing (November 2012). I wish I'd done the same.