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Josephine Tey

On the detective novelist.


I don’t much care if there is a body in the library. Someone else can deal with it. If there has been a death at the president’s lodging in some Oxford college, then the police are very welcome to look into it. Academic slayings are not really much more interesting than any other kind. I am bored by Miss Marple and by Maigret, and even more so by Hercule Poirot. Increasingly, Lord Peter Wimsey gives me the pip, though I once thought highly of him. He is too much of his time, as is his loyal servant Bunter. A modern murderer would have no need to fear him.

Father Brown is too clever by half, except for his one haunting and rather frightening remark which may be the cleverest thing Chesterton ever wrote. Asked his opinions on doom and Doomsday, the annoying priest muses, “We here are on the wrong side of the tapestry. . . . The things that happen here do not seem to mean anything; they mean something somewhere else. Somewhere else retribution will come on the real offender. Here it often seems to fall on the wrong person.” And my goodness, in the rather terrible scene which follows, his fear is shortly afterwards borne out. Every time I read this passage, it seems to set up an echo, far off, which takes a long time to die away. If there is a better description of the difference between temporal and eternal justice, I do not know where it is. I have certainly spent most of my life gazing at the wrong side of the tapestry, inventing pictures and patterns which will no doubt turn out to be wholly mistaken. Alas, we cannot see the other side at all, most of the time. But otherwise, Father Brown leaves me cold.

Adam Dalgliesh, P.D. James’s poet/detective who somehow combines a talent for published verse with a brilliant nose for falsehood and a career in the higher bureaucracy of Scotland Yard, is wholly incredible. This is like him being (say) a bishop who spends his weekdays as a one-man band on Brighton Beach, paints superb landscapes under a pseudonym, and also breeds pedigree Chihuahua dogs. I wish Lady James had instead chosen to tell us more about Dalgliesh’s only successful adversary, Cordelia Gray, the amateur private detective and heroine (in the proper sense of the term) of that marvelous book An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.

Setting this unique work to one side, only two major detective writers fully keep my attention, over and over again. The first, obviously, is Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who taught me as a child that reason is the greatest weapon in the hand of man, even if he is also a crack shot and a useful boxer. I never pass a day without muttering under my breath his great rebuke to Dr. Watson: “You see—but you do not observe!” Generally, I am telling myself off when I do this, but not always. I could go on, and have gone on about Holmes at length, as he stalks through my imagination all the time.

But here I would like instead to dwell on Conan Doyle’s only real rival as a provoker of thought, the mysterious Josephine Tey. She is mysterious because we know so little about her. Josephine Tey was not her real name (which was Elizabeth MacKintosh) nor was it her only pseudonym. As Gordon Daviot (note the change of sex) she was a successful playwright in the 1930s. Her plays are now forgotten and not performed, probably because they are far too conservative for the modern theater-going classes. We know virtually nothing of her private life, which allows for all kinds of speculations. Like so many women of her vintage (she was born in 1896), she lost a sweetheart in the trenches of the First World War. He does not seem ever to have been replaced. She was a dutiful daughter to her widowed father, a shopkeeper of modest means. After she died, most of her papers and other significant possessions were ruined thanks to a leaking water pipe in her house. Before her plays freed her from daily drudgery, she was, of all things, a physical training instructor—a type of education in which there can be no pretense by teacher or pupil.

I might add that she was plainly conservative by nature. This is well illustrated by a famous passage in her novel The Franchise Affair in which a young man denounces a type we nowadays know so well in the following words: “Your lot are never interested in justice, are they? Only in injustice. . . . You and all your crowd, who are for ever adopting good-for-nothings and championing them against the world. You wouldn’t put out a finger to keep a hard-working little man from going down the drain, but let an old lag lack the price of a meal and your sobs can be heard in Antarctica.”

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