As I mentioned yesterday, the theme for this month’s TBR Challenge was a recommended book. As I have piles and piles, and piles of recommended books in the many valleys and peaks of my TBR, an utter ’embarrassment of riches,’ the real problem lay in finding one that would grab me.
Did I mention most of the books in the TBR of Doom are there due to recommendations?
A couple of months ago, if that, Marilyn (aka MFOB), mentioned on twitter that this book was on sale, and recommended it. I grabbed it, but, still suffering from reader slump, had let it sit in the digital TBR, one more forgotten title. Then, last week as I was strolling through my digital library, I saw the cover, re-read the blurb, and started reading.
Thank you, Marilyn, what a wonderful read!
Two caveats: first, this novel shouldn’t need yet another glowing review–not for nothing, the UK Crime Writers’ Association named it as number one in the Top 100 Crime Novels of all time back in 1990, and it’s number four in the Mystery Writers of America Top 100 Mystery Novels of all Time, published in 1995 (see both lists in full here). Unfortunately, Ms Tey’s work is not as widely known as one might wish, and so, here we are.
Second, wherever you stand on the issue of whether Richard III was the quintessential Wicked Uncle or not, reading this book is likely to, at the very least, push you to learn more about this period in history, and at most, convert you into a fervent Ricardian.
The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey
While you really don’t need to know much about The War of the Roses, it helps to have a basic idea of the succession (the digital edition does have two handy family trees at the beginning, but it’s not as easy for me to flip between them and the text, as it is on a print edition. YMMV, of course).
The second, this novel is entirely an exercise in deduction. There are no chases, interrogations, or, indeed, any action. Our intrepid hero, an experienced and successful detective, is immobilized, strapped to, and in traction, on a hospital bed, for about ninety percent of the story.
Here, have a blurb:
Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, recuperating from a broken leg, becomes fascinated with a contemporary portrait of Richard III that bears no resemblance to the Wicked Uncle of history. Could such a sensitive, noble face actually belong to one of the world’s most heinous villains—a venomous hunchback who may have killed his brother’s children to make his crown secure? Or could Richard have been the victim, turned into a monster by the usurpers of England’s throne? Grant determines to find out once and for all, with the help of the British Museum and an American scholar, what kind of man Richard Plantagenet really was and who killed the Little Princes in the Tower.
The Daughter of Time is an ingeniously plotted, beautifully written, and suspenseful tale, a supreme achievement from one of mystery writing’s most gifted masters.
The story is told exclusively from Grant’s point of view, with very little actual dialogue, and it is through the eyes of this tough, unsentimental, experienced foot soldier of the law, that we see every other character in the story–from the nurses to his surgeon to his friend, stage actress Marta Hallard, to his char-woman, Mrs “Tink” Tinker.
I loved the writing voice, even though I winced in places (see the quote below, for example-emphasis mine). It is not only that, at the time the novel was written, equality between genders was not even a concept, but that Grant is supposed to be a Scotland Yard detective working the streets, dealing with petty criminals.
The Midget was Nurse Ingham, and she was in sober fact a very nice five-feet-two, with everything in just proportion. Grant called her The Midget to compensate himself for being bossed around be a piece of Dresden china which he could pick up in one hand. When he was on his feet, this is to say. It was not only that she told him what he might or might not do, but she deal with his six-feet-odd with an off-hand ease that Grand found humiliating. Weights meant nothing, apparently, to The Midget. She tossed mattresses around with the absent-minded grace of a plate spinner. When she was off duty he was attended to by The Amazon, a goddess with arms like the limbs of a beech tree. The Amazon was Nurse Darroll, who came from Gloucestershire and was homesick each daffodil season. (The Midget came from Lytham St. Anne’s, and there was no daffodil nonsense about her.) She had large soft hands and large soft cow’s eyes and she always looked very sorry for you, but the slightest physical exertion set her breathing like a suction-pump. On the whole, Grant found it even more humiliating to be treated as a dead weight than to be treated as if he were no weight at all. (Chapter 1)
Ms Tey didn’t write from what Suzanne Brockmann calls ‘deep point of view,’ but with each word she painted a rich, vivid portrait of her main character. This is a man with great curiosity, with integrity, one who pays attention. The reader can believe that he would be a detective, that he would be good at it–and thus, we come to trust the process by which Grant reaches his final conclusions.
Personally, as someone with only the vaguest of clues about the War of the Roses (that it was between the houses of Lancaster and York, and that was pretty much it), about Richard III (that there’s a play wherein he’s pretty much cartoonishly evil, yet there are societies devoted to clean his name–and his remains were found under a parking lot in Leicester a few years ago), and that the Tudors had only the faintest claim to a royal bloodline before RIII’s death, the way the novels is structured was fantastic.
Because as the book starts, Grant himself knows scarcely more about any of these things than I do. And as he learns more about the period, the relationships (familial, political, economic) between the main actors of the period, as well as what documents from the time say (as opposed to official accounts written decades later, under Tudor kings), Grant begins to question just how much truth is in what ‘everyone knows’ about Richard.
As an aside: I absolutely love the cynical eye Ms Tey, through Grant, turns towards history. As the stepdaughter of a history professor, it is no wonder to me that, to this day, well known historical facts are re-examined and debunked. What the victor wants the public to remember, and what actually happened (and why), are too often at odds. Just as on the witness stand, even first hand accounts are subject to that most human of failings: individual bias.¹
As a crime novel, The Daughter of Time is nigh near perfect: it answers the only relevant question. If Richard III didn’t need to kill his nephews to become king, who did their disappearance benefit most?
I don’t want to rehash the evidence–mostly in the form of logical reasoning based on historical fact and contemporary documentation–that Ms Tey presents to advance her case in favor of Richard’s innocence; suffice it to say that it convinced me, on the basis that Richard wouldn’t have profited from the Princes’ disappearance after his own coronation–whereas Henry Tudor’s own vague claim to the throne would have stood no chance whatsoever, were the Princes still alive in London after Richard’s death in battle.
My only issue now is that I am tempted to hunt everything available on the period…
Loyaulté Me Lie
10 out of 10.
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¹ Just look at current events as reported by people from opposing sides in politics, or religion, or, hell, anything.