Since there has been a sudden resurgence of interest in the British consciousness of late regarding Richard the Third, and the fact that a skeleton found under a car park is apparently him, I realised I knew nothing about him apart from the tale I was told at school that he killed his two nephews. A book which looks at Richard III is ‘The Daughter of Time’ by Josephine Tey and so I thought I would give it a whirl, I also remembered that this book was discovered through a mystery all of its very own. I was on the phone to my mother a few months ago and she suddenly said ‘oh Simon, you will know this. What is the book about the murder of the two princes in the Tower of London that was on radio 4 this week, or maybe it was last week, it sounded really good.’ Alas Simon didn’t have a clue but thanks to twitter and a shout out I was deluged with possibilities and then discovered that it was ‘The Daughter of Time’ and that it had been on an episode of ‘A Good Read’ which, oddly as I listen to every episode, I had missed somehow. I managed to wangle my mother and myself copies of it and whilst she read it almost the moment she had it, I was waiting for the right time. Now seemed like it.
I think that ‘The Daughter of Time’ might be one of the most unusual mystery novels I have read in terms of its structure. From the cover you would think that Josephine Tey would be writing a historical mystery set in the late 1400’s and early 1500’s of Richard’s rule. This is not the case at all and in fact the whole novel is told in the confines of one room as Inspector Alan Grant lies on a hospital bed after having an accident chasing after a criminal. Grant is beyond bored and needs something, anything, to take his mind off the ceiling which is all he can see when he is awake. Friends have brought books but none of them are gripping him. However when his friend, and star of the theatre scene, Marta brings him an array of faces that have mysteries behind them he finds himself struck by the portrait of Richard III. What intrigues him all the more is that people have such a definite reaction to him, mainly as a wicked tyrant, hunchback and murderer. Yet as Grant looks at his face he isn’t so sure he sees a killer, and having met a few he feels he would know, and so he decides to find out more and indeed if this man could really have killed his nephews and what might have driven him to it.
“So that was who it was. Richard the Third. Crouch-back. The monster of nursery stories. The destroyer of innocence. A synonym for villainy.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect from a Josephine Tey novel, yet this wasn’t it. Whilst I have not read her before, though I have read a fictional account of her, I imagined that her novels would be gripping but might be a little bit twee – I am not sure where this assumption has come from. What Tey delivers with this novel is a cleverly twisted take on both the historical novel and the crime novel and I loved how different it was. I didn’t think just by having Grant reading about Richard III, and then having the help of an American Scholar at the British Museum visiting to help him, that I would be transported to the era and yet on occasion I found myself very much there, especially when Tey writes fictional accounts by other authors of what they think went on in her own fictional book.
I did have a few small quibbles with the book though despite how much I enjoyed it. Occasionally I felt that Tey included too many excerpts of the dry historical tomes that she seemed to be berating and so there were chunks of ‘The Daughter in Time’ that felt rather wooden by default and broke the spell for me every now and then. Secondly I didn’t feel Tey could decide if she had to spell everything out for the reader in terms of the history of the time, and the events before and after it, in case you didn’t know it or if she assumed that anyone reading the book would know what happened and so she weirdly veered between the two. Sometimes you would have a really detailed picture of what was going on and others I was re-reading and re-reading the pages to see just how everyone was linked to whom and in what way.
This mainly happened in the middle of the book safely sandwiched between the section in which we get to know Grant, and the wit in which he describes his nurses, and his friends and how his interest in Richard III starts and then in the final section of the book where he starts to think that maybe Richard III wasn’t the ogre, and more importantly the murderer, that everyone has come to think of him as. The ending gets really gripping and builds up quite a pace, which seems so ironic as its told in the most mundane of hospital rooms, very clever.
Whilst I can’t say I was completely hooked throughout the whole of ‘The Daughter of Time’ (I feel I am being a much tougher reviewer at the moment, I am blaming ‘The House of Mirth’ for being so wonderful and everything I have read since just not being able to match) I did enjoy it as a different take on historical and mystery fiction. It is very much a book about books and the importance of them both fictional and non, and also a book that reminds you to question everything you are told as fact, some of it might not be true. A good read indeed that is written in a way I haven’t experienced in a novel of these genres before and one I would recommend trying if you ever need something to escape into.
Who else has read this and what did you think of it? I am undecided if I should try more Tey or not in the future, would you recommend I do so or not, and if so where next?