What Is Actually Going On?
An Interview With P.D. James

52 Authors: Week 29 - Josephine Tey

I love mysteries. My affection for a good mystery began with Nancy Drew when I was in the third grade (Nancy Drew was better then.), and has continued for 57 years unabated. There are some authors currently writing mysteries that I enjoy, but my very favorite authors are the women who began writing in what is known as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, the 1920s and 1930s. Four of these women: Dorothy Sayers (Peter Wimsey) , Ngaio Marsh (Roderick Alleyn), Margery Allingham (Campion), and Agatha Christie (Well, you know.), were known as The Queens of Crime. Christie and Sayers are still well known, and all four have had BBC Mystery series featuring their detectives, but there was another woman writing during that time that I enjoy just as well, and maybe more.

I wish I could remember when or where I first found a book by Josephine Tey, née Elizabeth Mackintosh, or which book it was. I know it was a long time ago. In her day, she was quite well-known, probably more so in England than the United States, but her popularity doesn’t seem to have been as durable as that of the “queens.” Her books are easily available online, but they all seem to have been last published in the 90s. Maybe it’s because she wrote so few books—only eight mysteries in all. I’m sure publishers love to see those rows of Christie mysteries on the shelves and know that once you’re hooked, you’re going to want to read them all.

Week29-Richard-program-coverEarly in her writing career Tey, under the name Gordon Daviot, wrote plays. Her first play, Richard of Bordeaux, ran for 14 months in the West End (the Broadway of London), which, Wikipedia tells me, was at that time considered a long run. The star and director of Richard was John Gielgud and, again from Wikipedia quoting a book by Martial Rose:

Prior to that production, Gielgud was regarded as a highly respected classical actor based on his performances at the Old Vic, but the overwhelming success of Richard of Bordeaux catapulted him into the status of superstar.

Tey must have been rather fond of the play herself. In Daughter of Time, her next-to-last mystery, she has her detective, Inspector Grant, say that he saw Richard of Bordeaux three times when he was young. From this and other comments that Grant makes, one gets the impression that Tey did extensive research for her plays, which later contributed to her most famous mystery.

Murder, she didn’t necessarily write.

Unlike the Queens of Crime, Tey did not always write mysteries which were centered around murder. In two of her mysteries, I won’t say which, there is no murder at all, and in some of the others, the murder is in the past and not the most important element of the book. What is central to many of her mysteries is the characters: their psychological makeup and their relationships. The books are more like novels than mysteries.

The first two mysteries: The Man in the Queue (1929) and A Shilling for Candles (1936), were written in the early period of Tey’s career when she was busy with her plays, and two novels. Both of these early mysteries (and indeed almost all of the latter) show the influence of the theatre. They are what you might think of as the average good mystery of the time. They begin with a murder, and Inspector Grant follows the clues and solves the mystery. If you were looking for a mystery featuring Miss Marple, Campion, or especially Roderick Alleyn, and couldn’t get your hands on any of these, you would be happy with either of these books.

Sir John Gielgud, who became a close friend of Tey’s, said that she, “… was distressed by her inability to write original plots.” If you stopped with those first two mysteries, you might think that this was an accurate assessment, but then in the late '40s, Tey wrote a series of mysteries that belied this opinion.


Tey’s first mystery sans Inspector Grant is Miss Pym Disposes. Miss Pym, a retired French teacher has found fame by writing a book about psychology.

She read her first book on psychology out of curiosity, because it seemed to her an interesting sort of thing; and she read all the rest to see if they were just as silly.

She thereafter develops her own theory of psychology which, by pure happenstance, comes to the attention of a publisher. On the publication of her book, she becomes the darling of the lecture circuit and thereby finds herself speaking at a college of physical culture at the behest of an old friend who is the head of the college.

During her stay there is an accident at the college, or perhaps a malicious act, and though the police arrive to investigate, the real detective is…well, nobody. Miss Pym observes what is going on, though, and it is gradually borne in on her what has happened.

There is in Miss Pym a vague similarity to Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night, but it is vague. What we have here is not the arena of the intellect, but that of the body, and how extreme physical stress affects the psyches of the different characters. The solving of the mystery is not the main lynchpin of the story. The unfortunate incident is incidental. It is just a means of illuminating the character of the students.

Next, there is The Franchise Affair. The story of two women living in genteel poverty who are accused of a terrible crime by a seemingly undefeatable adversary—a young, innocent-seeming teenage girl. Their only defense is a lawyer who has spent his career working on the business affairs of a small village: writs, and wills, and real estate, and who has no knowledge at all of criminal law. Inspector Grant has a small role in this one, but he could just as well have been Inspector Smith or Inspector Jones. The main story here is the ability of a relentless, self-centered, and conscienceless will to manipulate the truth, and the terrorism of the mob incited by an amoral press.

Brat Farrar is the third of this group. A young man, an orphan, who has lost his means of supporting himself due to an accident is approached by man who asks him to impersonate the deceased heir of his neighbor’s estate. Brat has an uncanny resemblance to the boy who is a supposed suicide, although no body has ever been found. Brat’s eventual acceptance of this imposture springs more from his desire to have a place in the world, and in particular a place which revolves around horses, as any monetary design. Again, the death of the boy heir is not the center of the story, but the door into the life of the characters.

A word about the inspector

Inspector Allan Grant is a detective for Scotland Yard. We are told that:

If Grant had an asset beyond the usual one of devotion to duty and a good supply of brains and courage, it was that the last thing he looked like was a police officer. He was of medium height, and slight in build, and he was—now, if I say dapper, of course you will immediately think of something like a tailor’s dummy, something perfected out of all individuality, and Grant is most certainly not that; but if you can visualize a dapperness that is not of the tailor’s dummy type, then that is Grant.

Elsewhere, we are told that he looked more ex-military than police.

Knowledgeable about food and wine, theatre and opera, he nevertheless lives a very simple life. He seems to be an introvert. When he has a nagging problem that he can’t solve, he employs the eureka principle—not that he calls it that. He goes elsewhere and tries to get involved with something else, and things fall into place in the back of his brain.

Unlike the detectives of the fab four mentioned above, and many other famous detectives from Sherlock Holmes to, well, Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes, he doesn’t have a sidekick. He has Williams, who does whatever Grant doesn’t have time to do, and he has Simpson who does likewise, only not as often, but for the most part, he works alone.

As for women, there is the actress Marta Hallard, who is a better woman than thee or me. A tall, graceful actress who knows how to cook, what to drink, and when to keep her mouth shut, she is the woman that Grant would marry if either of them were interested in marriage. There is never the slightest intimation that their relationship is other than Platonic.

In a couple of the books it is mentioned that Grant has flair. Not the best word for it in my opinion, but it means that he has a certain intuitive sense that something is not right, or that there is another way to look at the problem than the one they are using. His superior, Superintendent Barker, recognizes this, but he thinks that you can overdo it.

“Is this an example of the famous flair?” said Barker. . .Put it out of your head, Grant, until you get even a tittle of evidence to substantiate it. Flair is all very well, and I don’t deny that you have been uncanny once or twice, but it has always been more or less in accordance with the evidence before….

Grant makes his appearance again in To Love and Be Wise and stays through the last mystery, The Singing Sands. These two meld the detective fiction of Tey’s first two mysteries with the more narrative style of the next three. I won’t say much about them except that in the last book, Grant’s interest and imagination are captured by a poem that he finds scrawled on the back of a newspaper that he accidentally removes from the train compartment of a man who has died from a fall in a drunken state.

The beasts that talk,
The streams that stand,
The stones that walk,
The singing sands,
. . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . .
That guard the way
To Paradise

The face of the dead man, and the words of the poem are so inconsistent with his death by inebriation that Grant sets off to find out who the man was and where he was going—and what that poem describes.

I said all that to say this.

In 1960 the Crime Writer’s Association voted Tey’s masterpiece, Daughter of Time, The Best Mystery Novel of All Time. Peter Hitchens described it as “one of the most important books ever written.” I don’t know about that, but it is an excellent book that shows just how much of what we think we know about history is just not true.

We find Inspector Grant having prickles of boredom as he lies in a hospital bed recovering from having fallen through a trap door while in hot pursuit of Benny Skoll. To allay his boredom, Marta brings him a stack of prints of faces—faces of people to whom some mystery is attached. After thumbing through the group, Grant finds that this picture has dropped to his side.

Week29-R IIIThis is the painting of Richard III which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Grant, who believes himself to be an expert judge of faces, is surprised that Shakespeare’s villain, the man who murdered his beloved brother’s sons, has a face that he would have ascribed to a judge. “[A] judge,” in his opinion, “had a special quality; an integrity and a detachment. So, even without a wig, one did not confuse him with the man in the dock, who had neither integrity or detachment.” Well, you can’t always count on that anymore, but it’s sometimes true. In fact, I have a friend who is a judge, and she has just that look.

This dissonance between Richard’s face and his reputation leads Grant, with the help of young American researcher, to investigate the primary sources that reveal the more likely history of this much-maligned king.

Now, ever since Wolf Hall started to air, there has been much discussion about how Hilary Mantel has maligned Thomas More, and I have wanted to write something about this, but I decided I would save it for this post. The book that is responsible for most of the erroneous detraction of Richard III is attributed to Thomas More. Grant and his aide, Carradine, do find out, however, that the book that was published under More’s name was a manuscript copy of a book written by one John Morton. More lived in Morton’s home when he was young, and was almost certainly influenced by Morton’s adherence to the Tudor line.

I have wondered if Mantel might even have been influenced by Daughter of Time. While she is the perpetrator of just the kind of misinformation that Morton indulged in, she might perceive herself as being on the other side. So, I did a Google search for “hilary mantel daughter or time.” While I didn’t find any reference to Tey’s book by Mantel, there are others who have made that connection, notably Christopher Hitchens writing in Atlantic, who said:

Wolf Hall is a magnificent service to the language and literature whose early emancipation it depicts and also, in its demystifying of one of history’s wickedest men, a service to the justice that Josephine Tey first demanded in The Daughter of Time.

Except she didn’t. Most amusing though was this quote from Mantel herself describing the portrait of Cromwell that hangs in the National Gallery. She says, “"[Cromwell] doesn't care what you think of him. No man more immune to insult. Truth is the daughter of time. Time is what we haven't got." Maybe she is thinking about Tey. That quote, “Truth is the daughter of time,” is found at the beginning of The Daughter of Time.

And by the way

Recently, Josephine Tey has been resurrected by a series of mysteries written by Nicola Upson in which Tey is the detective. I have been listening to the first one, An Expert in Murder, and while it is well-written, I’m not completely happy with it. The murder scene is rather graphic (although far from the worst) and eerie, which is something you never see in Tey, and Upson has so far professed a political opinion or two which I suspect is foreign to Tey. Tey was a very private person, and not much at all is known about her life. I’m afraid that Upson might be inventing a false life for her similar to the false life of Richard III.

Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.


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I'm pretty sure I read one of Tey's mysteries many years ago. But I don't have any idea which one. I'm even more sure that I had a book called something like Three by Tey containing three of her novels, but I don't see it on my shelf now. I'll have to give her another try. My wife recently read Daughter of Time and really liked it.

I that that book with the three novels. I wanted to say something about the difference between detective fiction by men and detective fiction by women, but as you can see, it was already too long.

I could have written another 1000 words easily.


I read the daughter of time at school aged about 12 and loved it.

This has your real name on it. Did you mean to do that?


Yes, I thought about that gender difference when I read this. I enjoy Sayers et.al. but don't like them anywhere near as much as I do Chandler and Macdonald.

And I would say vice versa for me, except for Macdonald. And the reason is probably the same reason I like Tey. I was thinking this morning that one reason I like her so much is that her books are more thoughtful than the other mysteries, and I would say that Macdonald is more thoughtful than the other noir mystery writers.

Something I found rather amusing--I watched a BBC production of The Franchise Affair and it was well done, but they used music that would have been appropriate for Chandler, et. al., and it just didn't work.



Yeah I'm not Grumpy it's just my feet are all swollen and my back is covered in mosquito bites

Great post, Janet.

I read Miss Pym Disposes and The Daughter of Time ages ago, and don't really remember much about them except that they were very good. I need to pick them up again, and also read some of her other books.

Haven't read it, but apparently the third book in that new Josephine Tey detective series has a lesbian subplot and Josephine is made to think about her own sexuality. Groan.

Well, I haven't gotten that far, but there is a lesbian couple introduced somewhere in the first few chapters, and the scene is written as though it were happening today. What I mean is there is no reticence at all--no sense that anyone would question the relationship, which is ridiculous.


"...has a lesbian subplot and Josephine is made to think about her own sexuality."

Well, of course. It's like a Victorian saying the right things about Duty or Motherhood.

My wife and I watched several seasons of Call the Midwife. It was quite good in a lot of ways, but we gave it up partway through this last season because they were starting to beat the homosexuality drum. One of the main characters was clearly about to start Exploring Her Sexuality. Sooo boorrrrinnnng.

I recognize several of the Tey titles, but I can't remember if I've read them. I'm guessing not, because they sound memorable.

"I thought about that gender difference when I read this. I enjoy Sayers et.al. but don't like them anywhere near as much as I do Chandler and Macdonald."

Interesting -- my two favorite mystery writers are James and Ian Rankin, but I've never really thought about it in terms of gender.

Never heard of Ian Rankin.

I was thinking James and Ian Rankin were brothers for a minute there.


He wrote the series set in Edinburgh with D.I. John Rebus. They're procedurals -- somewhat hardboiled, and great stuff.

Louise pointed out to me that my name is not on this post.


Sorry. It's fixed now. I keep doing that, but usually I catch it fairly soon. Robert's Newman post was up that way last night for a bit before I remembered.

I wouldn't even have noticed if Louise hadn't said something. I don't think I've ever noticed until somebody said something.


I'm curious now about the difference between detective fiction by men and detective fiction by women.

Incidentally, have any of you read any of Alexander McCall Smith's Mma Ramotswe series?

Well, you know I have. McCall Smith is an anomaly. I think of all the men I've read, he captures the female voice the best.


I ought to do a post about him--unless you want to, Paul. I could do it without reading a thousand books.


The thought flitted through my mind when I wrote the question, only to be rejected instantly. I wouldn't know what to say. I'd be very interested in reading what you have to say.

I'd like to hear it, too. I haven't read him. I picked up a used copy of one of his books sometime in the past year or so but haven't read it. They seem to be well regarded by almost everyone.

I'm just about to listen to that Peter Hitchens link, Janet.

Well, clearly that book and this author are going to have to be added to my list.

I guess he sold you.

That book in particular.


He did! But I had not got around to reading this particular post until now.

Putting this on the other foot, so to speak, one of the most striking things about M. Robinson's Gilead is how she gets the narrator's voice so right, in terms of his maleness, and moreso, his thoughts and feelings as a father.

Yes, that's true. I've talked about that with somebody-or-other before.


Speaking of Robinson, I read a review of a book of non-fiction by her--miscellaneous essays etc. I think--in which she apparently slams political conservatives in a very conventional sort of way. I'm not surprised that she would hold conventional liberal views, but a little surprised that someone capable of so much generous insight in her fiction would have so little of it in that arena. Only a little surprised, though.

Yes, I came across that same thing in an interview with her I read. Her take on conservatism seems quite unnuanced.

The only books of Robinson's I've read besides Gilead are Housekeeping and Mother Country, and both of those when they first came out, so a long time ago. Of Housekeeping, I remember only gorgeous writing, lots of water, and a very sad mentally unbalanced lead character. Of Mother Country, a polemic on the nuclear power industry in Britain, I was left mainly with a sense that it was written by a very angry, conspiracy-minded author. That's why Gilead came as such a surprise to me. After reading reviews of her latest non-fiction, though, I'm giving more credence to what Robinson has said about Gilead's John Ames having come to her as a "voice", as she related in a piece in the Guardian:

When the voice of John Ames came to me, it was something of a surprise. I had not written fiction for almost 25 years, and was not sure I would write any more of it. I had no reason to give it up, but in the absence of the special impulse I had felt when writing Housekeeping, I was interested in other things – teaching, gardening, reading. Then, in a hotel on Cape Cod just at Christmas, waiting for my sons to join me for the holiday, I became aware of an elderly, gentlemanly voice, the voice of a man about whom I seemed to know certain essential things. He was a minister, the father of a young son, and aware that his failing health meant that he would not live to see the boy grow up.

It came as a surprise to me also that it should be a man's voice I, so to speak, heard. But I did not find it difficult to sustain. I felt very much at ease with Reverend Ames. It was pleasant work, spending time in his company. This doesn't sound very literary, I know. But for some reason characters seem to enter my mind fairly fully conceived. I know I invent them, but I am never aware of any process of invention.

BroadChurch Season II is very good, but it, too, has a lesbian subplot - and for no reason whatsoever. It does not spoil the whole thing. LIke you say, it's just like George Eliot butting in to give some dull moral lecture.

You're right. There was absolutely no reason for that scene.

There were quite a few things that bothered me about BII.


I enjoyed it down to the last two episodes.

Its hard for me to say whether it's really good TV, because I was enjoying it just to look at GB. And to hear it.

Both follow-ups to 'Gilead' are very good, 'Lila' especially so.

To me Broadchurch II seemed more formulaic and more like "typical" TV than the first series, despite the winning performances. I'd watch the first one again -- the second one, probably not.

"...it's just like George Eliot butting in to give some dull moral lecture"

Ha. Exactly. Fundamentally similar impulse, too. That fact that they feel a need or obligation to do it is pretty significant.

The thing with Broadchurch 2 is the introduction of Charlotte Rampling. She's a good actress and a beautiful woman - I would not mind looking like that at her age. But she is irretrievably associated in people's minds with kinky sex. She was in The Night Porter, which is an SM film. I snuck out of boarding school and went to see it. Actors and actresses often play a single steriotype that we expect from them - Clint Eastwood plays 'Clint Eastwood' in all his films. And what we somehow expect from Charlotte Rampling is a bit of SM.

From an interview I read with the director, they were somewhat making up the plot as they went. And I would have guessed that once one has Rampling one has to do something with that.

She kind of throws the drama off kilter. Because in addition to being a glamorous sex pot 70 year old, she's just plain glamorous. She doesn't fit into the careful portrayal of this Dorsetshire town which Series I developed. Of course, every village has its townees and former Londoners. But she still doesn't fit in. She's Parisienne.

I didn't have those associations and I didn't think of her that way at all.


To me she was just tired.


I haven't seen BCII (yet), and I never saw The Night Porter, but I sure remember the advertisements. Charlotte Rampling was in something else that I saw fairly recently...well, looking through her filmography I only see one, Never Let Me Go, and I don't remember her role. Though judging from her picture I think the glamor you're seeing, Grumpy, may be an association from her older movies.

She must have been the teacher that collected the children's artwork.

I'm glad you mentioned Never Let Me Go because I knew I'd seen that actress somewhere before.


No Janet, you haven't seen Rampling in her early, sexy SM roles but the director and the other actors had, and they were seeing 'Charlotte Rampling.

No, but she didn't come across that way to me at all.


"That fact that they feel a need or obligation to do it is pretty significant."

A friend who lived in England for a long time and still visits four or five times a year (he's a writer and his publisher's there) tells me that the BBC has some sort of diversity clause that requires a homosexual character, presented positively, to appear in every series, except where historically unwarranted. This is not a joke.

Rampling was quite the looker when she was young. I remember her primarily from 'The Verdict' and 'Georgy Girl.'

The story about the BBC sounds apocryphal to me. I don't know how we could know unless we saw the charter.

I agree that there's probably not such a policy, but the idea there is one maybe stems from some comments made last year by the BBC's controller of drama commissioning, Ben Stephenson, who is himself gay and said that he's committed to showing diversity on TV and that "when the great gay script comes in, I'll definitely commission it".

From the executive summary of the relevant part of the BBC's 2010 diversity report:

In terms of ways forward, the research findings pointed to the following for the BBC:

• An editorial commitment from the BBC to better reflect the diversity of LGB people, tailored by genre. Importantly, from both the qualitative and quantitative research and from suggested improvements from heterosexual and LGB samples alike, there was a call for more realistic, less sensationalised coverage and fewer stereotypes.

• Integrating the ‘worlds’ of heterosexual and LGB people, so that sexual orientation is less a topic to cover and more an identity to reflect in the mix. It was clear in the research that people did not want a person’s sexual orientation to always be the main focus within content involving LGB characters or people.

• Making the most of creative opportunities in:
a) incidental LGB portrayal across all genres, fairly representing and reflecting the full and varied everyday lives of LGB people
b) overt and/or landmark content tailored to people who are hungry for more portrayal of LGB people, and for that to sometimes be challenging and iconic

• Flagging up forthcoming portrayal featuring LGB people and leveraging media and communications opportunities in order to endorse that portrayal. This would be with a view to attracting awareness and engagement of LGB people, particularly for those who are not out at all in terms of their sexual orientation, to help them find and connect with it.

Amplifying the BBC’s portrayal of LGB people in this way would also show a level of confidence in and commitment to LGB portrayal. At the same time, however, it would take into account the needs and sensibilities of people uncomfortable with the portrayal of LGB people.


Rampling seemed to disappear until about 1999 when she played Miss Havisham in a TV version of Great Expectations and then was in a couple of films made by the French director Francois Ozon that really brought her back on the scene. And now she's so "hot", there's even a documentary on her, The Look.

I don't think "Making the most of creative opportunities in incidental LGB portrayal across all genres" means there's any formal obligation on programme makers to include a homosexual character in every series, but I do suspect "Bung in some random lesbian subplot so we can tick that diversity box" will be the easiest way for producers to earn brownie points.

You know what the lesbian scene does then? It balances out Joe Miller. The plot of the first season revolves around finding who killed a teenage boy. The main suspect is Joe Miller, who it turns out was in a sexual relationship with the boy. That could be seen as anti-gay.

I'm a little surprised at: Flagging up forthcoming portrayal featuring LGB people and leveraging media and communications opportunities in order to endorse that portrayal. This would be with a view to attracting awareness and engagement of LGB people, particularly for those who are not out at all in terms of their sexual orientation, to help them find and connect with it.

Am I wildly misreading, or does this mean the BBC has a formal commitment to breaking down same-sex-attracted viewer resistance to self-identifying as "gay"? It might just be my unfamiliarity with the jargon.

Marianne I'd say if the main thing an actress is known for is being beautiful and sexy, she will disappear in her 40a. Of she is lucky and talented she will reappear later to play old ladies

I found it rather amusing that another tranche of the "diversity report" states that the majority of BBC staff whose religious affiliation is declared (the undeclared are 47%) self-identify as Christian (23%), followed by No religion (15%) and Atheist (9%), which rather suggests that Christians are comfortably present (perhaps even over-represented) at the BBC.

I have to admit I'd never heard of Charlotte Rampling. I remember all the fuss that was made about Michelle Yeoh being a "Bond girl" in her *late 30s*, and then being such a star in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon *even later in her 30s*. I thought at the time, "How stupid! She'll be a star forever!" But I don't think she's been in anything substantial since.

"You know what the lesbian scene does then? It balances out Joe Miller."

Hadn't thought of that, but it makes perfect sense.

Just finished watching the Showtime series 'The Affair' the other night. It's very well done, with excellent acting (Ruth Wilson is amazingly good) but the amount of sex is just ridiculous. There is at least one quite explicit sex scene in each episode. The opening episode actually had four -- three in the first half hour. Starting with the third episode (I watched the first two back to back) I began fast-forwarding through those scenes. I'd like to see how things turn out in the second season, because the mystery element is quite good, but I'm not sure I'm going to follow up with it. All the sexual stuff is just insane.

"Am I wildly misreading, or..."

I don't think you're misreading at all. This makes a good item for my "what's actually happening" gallery: liberal-leftism is, functionally, a religion, with missionary zeal.

I thought I had posted a comment on this last night, but I don't see it. Guess I never clicked 'post'. Anyway, what it said was that the historians of some future society are probably going to look at all this stuff and marvel at the craziness of it.

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