Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A talented but half-forgotten mystery writer, Josephine Tey

Cover image from the Arrow edition, 2002, from dooyoo

Josephine Tey was a nom de plume for this writer, as was Gordon Daviot. Born in Scotland as Elizabeth Mackintosh, she died in 1950.  Her series detective was Alan Grant.

Protagonist Grant spends this very original novel lying in bed recovering from broken bones sustained in a fall through a trapdoor, presumably while on another case.

As Inspector Grant lies in the hospital, with only two very different but equally strict nurses and a few visitors for company, he begins to sink into boredom.

Neither the theatrical gossip of his actress friend Marta nor the new but sadly uninteresting books she brings engage his attention. It is only when she comes up with the idea of bringing along a few posters of faces for him to gaze at that Grant's mind clicks into gear.

Gazing at the portrait of Richard III and showing it to the few others who come to his room,  he becomes intrigued when the face is perceived by the various people to be that of a judge, a polio victim, and a man with an unhealthy liver. Nobody sees the classic villain of history.

Marta provides a second boon for Grant's recovery in the form of the "wooly lamb," a curly-haired American scholar called Brent, who is whiling away his time doing research at the British Museum while his girl friend acts in a West End play.

With Grant as theorist, and Brent as researcher, the two-man team uncovers what Grant dubs (after a similar Welsh propaganda exercise) a Tonypandy, a massive misrepresentation of history by historians. The team uncovers the incredible fictions that were cooked up to whitewash other nasty historical characters and make Richard III, quite inaccurately, into a hunchbacked villain.

As for the old story of Richard killing the princes in the tower, some good research into primary source documents (by ordinary people of the time with no axes to grind) proves he cannot possibly have done it.

Josephine Tey demonstrates a knowledge of U.K. history. Against the context of the Welsh Tonypandy affair, her detective learns of a similar Scottish incident: putative martyrdom that was no such thing. Yet the monument stands and the story keeps being passed down, even after it's been proven to be another case of a dramatic historical misrepresentation.

As well as being a good read, this book is an impressive display of deconstructing history, long before this activity and the attendant word deconstruction entered the lexicon through academe.

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