Who remembers Josephine Tey and her hero, Inspector Alan Grant? Perhaps very few, though her novel, The Daughter of Time, was listed as number 1 on the British Crime Writers’ Association list of the Top Crime Novels of All Time in 1990 nearly 40 years after her death. In 1995, The Mystery Writers of America rated the book fourth on their similar list.
The Daughter of Time is an unusual mystery, in which Alan Grant, recovering from a badly broken leg in hospital, is sent a card of the National Portrait Gallery’s picture of Richard III painted by an artist who was Richard’s contemporary. In Grant’s view, the portrait doesn’t jibe with Richard’s reputation as a murderous villain and Grant sets out to discover the “real nature” of the maligned king and to prove that he had no reason to kill his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. An unlikely plot perhaps, but the tracking down of evidence for his theory with the help of several mobile friends, turns the chase into a suspenseful, gripping story.
Josephine Tey, the pseudonym of Elizabeth MacKintosh 1896 –1952 wrote a number of novels about Alan Grant; a highly developed character since she wrote the books from his point of view. He is given to reflection on the characters of the people he meets, the essential nature of a criminal, his job and “modern” society as he digs into the case at hand. Tey was highly regarded as an elegant, witty crime novelist, one of the stars of the Golden Age of Crime Fiction (c 1920-1950) as well as a successful playwright. Richard of Bordeaux was particularly popular; it enjoyed a long run in London and was revived many times.
The other day, I was reading—or rather re-reading—The Singing Sands which was published after Tey’s death. This book, which succeeded The Daughter of Time, is set in Scotland. Grant, on his way to take a recuperative holiday in the Highlands, becomes obsessed with the death of a young man who dies on the London Mail and who is discovered by the lazy sleeping car attendant, just as the train draws into its destination. It is Grant who says to the incompetent and resentful attendant, trying to wake the young passenger he supposes to be drunk, “Can’t you recognise a dead man when you see one?” and later remembering the young man’s face becomes convinced that he has been murdered even though an inquest rules the death an accident.
Sue Coletta’s recent post, about “body farms” and her list of 6 Mind-Blowing Forensic Advancements, is a reminder of how greatly forensic methods have changed, in real life and in detective fiction. The emphasis on physical evidence and the use of DNA as well as the assessment of corporeal decay and destruction have no place in Tey’s novels. Alan Grant‘s investigation follows old-fashioned methods. Convinced that the dead man has been misidentified and murdered, he follows the only clue he has at that point— a scribbled poem on the newspaper that Grant has inadvertently picked up in the victim’s sleeping compartment. He advertises in the London papers for anyone recognising the poem quoted here:
The beasts that talk
The streams that stand
The stones that walk
The singing sands…
That guard the way to Paradise,
This brings a whole “sack of mail” to the local country Post Office addressed to A. Grant. Finally, I’m getting to the letters! Grant, musing on a life-time in the CID, thinks that, “there were people whose only interest in life was writing letters”. They were happy to write to more or less anyone, the newspapers, authors, strangers, City Councils, as well as the police, and thrilled to respond to advertisements in the paper. He concludes that it did not much matter to whom they wrote, “the satisfaction of writing seemed to be all.”
Of course private correspondence by letter was so much a part of many people’s lives in the past, that it isn’t surprising that writers often structured their fiction around letters. And now, though this is rare in fiction and we write many fewer letters ourselves, we are still fascinated by the correspondence of others; collected editions of letters by the famous, memoirs and family histories have become highly popular with readers lately.
A modern outlet for the dedicated letter writer, whose chief satisfaction is in the act of writing, is of course, the internet. Those looking for readers can now tap into a large audience on-line. Bloggers are may use the opportunities given them to connect with those who share their interests or enjoy the community which builds on an interactive website where a great variety of posts are gathered. Whether we want to instruct, to provoke discussion, to entertain or just to share or promote our ideas and our work, the blogging world has a place for everyone who feels an urge to communicate with readers. Especially since instead of a form letter or no reply at all, the fortunate blogger may become involved in a conversation!
I am grateful for blogs like The Story Reading Ape’s Blog and Smorgasbord: Variety is the Spice of Life. Chris’ and Sally’s dedication has brought them a large, admiring following. There is always something of interest to read on these sites. But there is much pleasure and often fascinating information to be found on smaller ones. I read several and only wish I had the time to explore some more of the thousands out there!