As part of Dead Good‘s month long celebration of the wonderful world of Classic Crime, author Ruth Ware discusses the lasting legacy of Josephine Tey.
When I was about thirteen or fourteen, I fell in love. We were an unlikely couple. I was a teenage school girl from Sussex, rather short, with a sprinkling of acne and a penchant for Doc Martins and REM. He was an eighteen-year-old orphan, fresh off the boat from a dude ranch in New Mexico. He had clear tanned skin and sandy hair, fine bones, and a limp where a horse had crushed his leg and it had healed short. He was fiercely independent and unself-pitying, in spite of the fact that his life had been anything but easy. A foundling who had never known his parents, he was brought up in an orphanage run by nuns, and aged 13 – about my own age in fact – he had run away to find his fortune, boarding a channel fishing boat as a stowaway, and making his way by slow degrees to America. There he had pulled himself up by his boot-straps, been knocked down again, and was in the process of pulling himself up once more when we met. He was also a con-artist – a man who was in the process of impersonating a dead boy he happened to resemble, in order to cheat the boy’s family out of their rightful inheritance; a fact which I knew, but which did nothing to diminish my admiration for him. He went by the name of Brat Farrar.
Brat was alas, completely fictional. But Brat Farrar was also my first introduction to the work of the Josephine Tey, a fiercely private writer, whose first novel The Man in the Queue appeared in 1929 under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot.
For the next two decades Tey wrote a book or a play a year, many featuring her most recurring character, Detective Inspector Alan Grant (who first appears in The Man in the Queue). While there are elements that modern readers may wince at occasionally – her snobbishness, and Grant’s 1940s fondness for physiognomy – they are all well written, gripping, and occasionally very funny, and they stand the test of time remarkably well. In 1948, at almost at the end of her life, she produced The Franchise Affair, a book which was to be the first of a remarkable trio of novels, which rank among the finest detective stories written. All three novels share similar pre-occupations: a fierce loathing of self-pity and intellectual propaganda, and an instinctive sympathy for the underdog. The Franchise Affair was swiftly followed in 1949 by Brat Farrar, and then in 1951 Tey produced what most people regard as her masterpiece – The Daughter of Time.
In The Daughter of Time Grant is laid low by the ignominious means of falling through a trap door in a theatre while chasing a villain. Bored out of his mind, he spends his days in hospital delving into a very different crime from the sort he is used to investigating – the murder of the Princes in the Tower. Tey was not the first writer to exculpate Richard, but she was one of the most influential, and her characteristically firm conclusion that Richard was not a monster but a great king, unjustly accused by history, makes for a riveting novel and a fine piece of historical research – but one that’s nevertheless still a hugely satisfying detective novel and once voted the greatest crime novel of all time.
Tey died in 1952, the year after The Daughter of Time was published, but she left us a remarkable legacy, not just in the form of her books, but in her fierce resistance to received wisdom, conventional thinking and the lazy acceptance of facts as they appear to stand.
Buy The Man in the Queue, Josephine Tey (Arrow) for just £1.99 this May.
Ruth Ware is the author of In a Dark, Dark Wood (Harvill Secker) out 30th July.