Skip to Content
Search Icon


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.”

Her books are also peppered with feline slashes at Scottish Nationalism, at bogus historical myths of all kinds—and at progressive education. There is plenty of evidence that she was in many ways a convinced social reactionary, which is why, I suspect, her works have not been televised or filmed all that much in the modern age and are always in danger of slipping out of view. She was a notable parodist. In her greatest book, The Daughter of Time, she amused herself by inventing several non-existent fashionable London authors and segments from the books they had recently written, solely so that one of her characters could reject them in favor of the true joys of supposedly dry history. The passage is a perfect and enduring satire of the London publishing world at any time in the last century.

Tey is not always superlative. I shall not bother again with her more conventional detective novels, The Man in the Queue or A Shilling for Candles. Her most autobiographical story, Miss Pym Disposes, is more satisfying. It is set in a college for physical training teachers and is neatly constructed and surprising but somehow underpowered. It was written in and for a much more shockable and conventional world than ours, and that may be its chief attraction: to remind ourselves of what was once thought normal, which is now shocking, and of what was once thought shocking, which is now normal. I may have missed the point of another novel, To Love and Be Wise, and I probably need to read it again a couple of times. But she wrote four books so good that every thoughtful person should read them. These are The Daughter of Time, The Franchise Affair, Brat Farrar, and The Singing Sands.

It is hard to say anything new about The Daughter of Time except that the first time I read it, on the urgings of a teacher, sixty years ago, I waited for many chapters for the actual Daughter of Time to appear. There was something very appealing in the phrase. I thought, even aged twelve, that she might be just what I was looking for in a girl, for the girl question was already worrying me even then. The edition of the book that I first read nowhere explained the allusion, so I shall explain it, in case you too do not know it. It is to Francis Bacon’s saying that “Truth is the Daughter of Time, not of Authority.” By the time I realized that there was no such character in the story, I had been swept up in it anyway. For I am from what was probably the last generation of English schoolboys to be taught as a tiny child the terrifying account of “The Princes in the Tower” and their wicked murderer, King Richard III. The same pack of Tudor propaganda lies is of course presented by Shakespeare in his play, but we generally come to this as adults. In our secure and gentle world, the idea that children were not safe from murderous adults was especially distressing. And yet perhaps I was relieved to find, thanks to Miss Tey, that I had had my heartstrings twisted by propaganda after all.

In every history book and encyclopedia in that era you would find a reproduction of Sir John Everett Millais’s picture of the poor doomed boys, holding each other’s hands as they awaited their fate. They seemed very distant from us, and I remember wondering why they were not making more of an effort to escape instead of standing about in this passive fashion. We had midnight escapes from my boarding school every few weeks, inspired by the wartime prison-camp stories we all read. These adventures were probably a wordless protest against the separation from home we all thought we desired, but actually did not like all that much. Nobody ever got very far, but that did not matter. In fact, it was better if they were swiftly apprehended, for they probably would not have received much of a welcome if they had made it all the way home. British middle-class parents of sixty years ago did not expect to see all that much of their sons. They would have been dismayed if they had turned up on their doorsteps in the middle of the boarding school term. It was the spirit of resistance that counted.

These princes were, by contrast, soppy. We, unlike them, would have died rather than hold hands with another boy. Our heads were frequently and severely cropped, as if there were a danger of lice, or we might be expected at any time to undertake military service. Our clothes were likewise brisk, coarse, and masculine, so there was something especially suspect and easy to resent about the princes’ long blond coiffures and girlish velvet suits. Our mothers might have grown sentimental over their fate, but we did not. A book that argued that this rather wet pair had possibly never been murdered at all—and had certainly not been done away with by Richard III—had more appeal than you might expect.

But beyond all these things was the use of sharp reason and skeptical investigation to establish truth in the face of conventional wisdom. I like to think that I have never since been willing to accept conventional wisdom. But the truth is that I have not always identified the modish and suspect at the time. Only the adventurous irresponsibility that comes with age has enabled me to question things which everybody believes, and to keep doing so when this gets me into trouble, as it does. But beyond doubt Josephine Tey’s key works influence me every day of my life. I will try not to give too much away to new readers in what I say next. The Daughter of Time is now so celebrated that its plot is impossible to keep secret. Its rivals are less famous, so there is more need to be reticent. In The Franchise Affair two odd-seeming and unattractive single women, living together in a secluded and sinister old house, are accused of a terrible crime of cruelty, and a mob goes to their home to smash their windows. It is quite impossible, to begin with, to see how they could possibly be innocent of the charge, or how their accuser could conceivably have fabricated the persuasive story she tells the police about them. The two accused are also not especially easy people to help, which is often the case in such matters.

Since I first read this book, and even more since the second, third, and fourth times (for it survives much re-reading), I have experienced a curious thing. The Presumption of Innocence, once just a rather noble theory which I felt I had to support, has hardened into my mind into a great rock in a weary land, a rule so important that there cannot be any justice without it. I simply do not believe any accusation until I have heard good objective evidence for it, even if—especially if—I really dislike the accused person. And once you value it, you will swiftly see how it has in practice been discarded in supposedly honest justice systems across the Anglosphere, diluted to nothing by majority verdicts in England, and simply evaded by plea bargaining (which is not morally much different from blackmail) in the United States. Incidentally I would advise anyone falsely accused of any crime to hire a decent private detective, for you really cannot expect the police or the prosecuting authorities to try very hard to undermine charges they have already decided to pursue. The Daughter of Time and The Franchise Affair should both be taught in all schools, for if they were there would be far less chance of people being locked in penitentiaries for things they have not done, and the very angels in Heaven would surely rejoice on every occasion we avoided that horrible outcome—as they must weep each time we fail to do so. Socially conservative persons, it seems to me, are particularly obliged to insist on the purity of justice, since they also tend to be the people calling for the proper punishment of the guilty.

In another of Tey’s classics, The Singing Sands, the intricate working of the murderer’s scheme is so ingenious that it very nearly works. But the mystery is wrapped in another story, about a police officer’s terrible struggle with claustrophobia, and about the neglected conflict between human love and the driving need to immerse ourselves in work, which some of us have. And so it is something of a surprise at the end to be reminded that a very wicked crime needed to be solved and its culprit exposed. Tey’s loathing for false narratives in history, and her lashing scorn for grievance-based politics, is also very much on display, as it is in the last of her books I shall examine, Brat Farrar. This book will struggle to remain respectable in modern times because of its love for such unfashionable things as continuity, old money, and even the disciplined and noble aspects of horsemanship. In one welling moment, the guardian of a group of orphaned children asks herself how she might account for her care and upbringing of those children if their parents (long dead in a pre-1939 air crash) should suddenly turn out to be alive and walk smiling through the door, fresh from their weekend in Paris. Of course they will not do so. But the reader realizes that what the guardian has tried to do is to raise those children according to the rules and customs which the war has swept away, as time has swept away so many of the other long-established families in the same piece of long-settled countryside. This is partly a book in defense of the prosperous Anglican rural middle classes of Southern England which Tey, from egalitarian, Calvinist Scotland, had obviously come to value rather highly. Cradled amid this love-letter to a vanishing caste is a plot of some brilliance, which I will not disclose to you, though it involves the re-appearance of one of the children, who was long believed to be lost. There is then one of those quiet moments in which the whole plot turns over, twice, leaving the first-time reader gaping and wondering if he has just read what he has read. And ultimately there is retribution and restoration, but at a terrible price. The police are barely involved. The reader must be the detective, who comes to know almost everything but still cannot tell how it will end. The scene remains in the mind, in my case always, reeling through my imagination with the clarity of an old black and white film.

But once again, the victorious force in this book is the truth, a truth previously hidden and not even guessed at, but which the determined actions of individuals can uncover and put back into power, to the terror of wrongdoers. Perhaps Josephine Tey was herself the Daughter of Time, whom I so longed to meet as a child. Her huge talent really should be better known than all those other gilded and flashy so-called Queens of Crime whose volumes fill the bookshop shelves.