Three Reasons To Read Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey: a studio portrait that looks, but only looks, like a selfie.
Josephine Tey: a studio portrait that looks, but only looks, like a selfie.

Today, 25 July, would have been Josephine Tey’s 118th birthday. Fortunately, Tey, like Gladys Mitchell, is one of those golden age crime writers whose profile is rising now. Though never obscure, she has been in and out of print, and, while she is frequently listed with Christie, Sayers, Marsh, and Allingham, as the fifth Queen of Crime, this is more often than not a matter of lip service.

One reason for Tey’s neglect is paradoxically her chief strength: inconsistency. That is not to say, as with Ellery Queen, Anthony Berkley, or even Margery Allingham, that her work is of uneven quality. Quite the contrary: she produced a set of very distinctive masterpieces. Each novel is a completely different kind of mystery.

First off, Josephine Tey was a pseudonym. Her real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh, and Tey was one of two pen names, the other being Gordon Daviot. It is interesting that a writer should choose a masculine moniker for stage writing and something more feminine (albeit weighty and gothic) when writing domestic fiction. Before her death in 1952, Tey published eight mystery novels, five of which featured her series detective, Adam Grant. Since her death she has cropped up here and there but never really enjoyed the limelight until Nicola Upson featured her as a detective in a series of novels, starting with An Expert in Murder (2008).*

Last month, I co-organised a conference called “Queens of Crime” where, unfortunately, the two papers dealing with Tey both fell through. One of our keynote speakers was the edgy crime writer Val McDermid, whose paper, “Why Tradition Matters” was a largely autobiographical tribute to the golden age. Tey fared particularly well, and Val described her as “bridging the gap between the golden age and modern crime fiction.” E.g., her ambitious novels indicate that the crime genre can address wider social concerns, even if they do so only fleetingly.

Similarly, in the latest issue of CADS, Lyn McConchie has discussed ‘modern themes in Josephine Tey,’ drawing attention towards Tey’s interest in cross-dressing, lesbianism, paedophilia, etc. I actually disagree with most of this analysis, which takes a specifically twenty-first century nostalgic, very heterosexual moral stance and presumes the same of Tey. Would readers in 1950 really have been shocked by transvestism, which, as Alison Oram reminds us in her excellent study, Her Husband Was a Woman!, was a staple of interwar and post-war tabloids? Is it really necessary to say that a character who lives as a “beautiful” man and enjoys sexual relationships with men and women is absolutely definitely a heterosexual woman who just found male dress more convenient in a masculine world?  I think that these themes are interesting for other reasons, which are worth exploring.

So. Rather than calling this list, “Three Books By Josephine Tey that You Should Read,” I’m calling it, “Three Reasons to Read Josephine Tey.” The books are the reasons, and each work is a convincing argument in its own right.

1. The Daughter of Time (1951), probably her most famous novel, and completely unique in style. Other writers have tried to copy it in principle — always without success. Now with all the hoo-har surrounding Richard III’s skeleton and burial, we can expect much more. Recovering from injuries in hospital, Adam Grant gets interested in the story of Richard III, and the murder of the princes in the tower. Piecing together historical sources and narratives, he comes to realise the power of Tudor propaganda and the responsibilities of historians and revisionists. The Daughter of Time is a landmark text in the rehabilitation of R3’s character, but it is also much more than that.

to-love-and-be-wise-josephine-tey2.  To Love and Be Wise (1950), an astonishing mystery in which Grant investigates a mysteriously beautiful young man called Leslie Searle. Throughout the novel, he finds himself oddly attracted to the androgynously named Leslie and there is a brilliant passage where he refuses to discuss homosexuality. The word “No” functions as reams of social commentary at this decisive post-war moment. At the end, everything seems  fine when the beautiful man turns out to have been a beautiful woman who is going to be “charged with a breach of the peace.” I first discovered this book while reading Marjorie Garber’s study of transvestism, Vested Interests, and knowing the shock solution didn’t compromise my analytical enjoyment.

3. Brat Farrar (1949) inspired the Hammer horror film, Paranoiac. If you’re interested in family, heredity, and the tendency of crime writers to explain the world through domestic details, then you need to read Brat Farrar. There is something frail and paranoid about the writing — and that rich old theme, of doppelgangers from different social backgrounds, is fruitfully plumbed.



* I should note that I’ve never read any of these books. Would be grateful for opinions!

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests : Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1993). Print.

McConchie, Lyn. “Modern Themes in Josephine Tey.” CADS: Crime and Detective Stories, 67 (March 2014), pp. 25-28. Print.

McDermid, Val. “Travelling in the Realms of Gold: Why Tradition Matters.” Queens of Crime (University of London, 12 June 2014). Keynote presentation.

Oram, Alison. “Her Husband Was a Woman!”: Women’s Gender-Crossing in Modern British Popular Culture (London, New York: Routledge, 2005). Print.

Tey, Josephine. Brat Farrar (London: Heinemann, 1949). Print.

—–. The Daughter of Time (London: Heinemann, 1951). Print.

—–. To Love and Be Wise (London: Heinemann, 1950). Print.

Upson, Nicola. An Expert in Murder (London: Faber, 2008). Print.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Josh, Yes – that was deliberate! I like the Franchise Affair but find these titles more interesting, personally. Still, all of Tey’s novels were important masterpieces — including the famous ones like Franchise and Daughter, and the less famous ones like The Singing Sands,

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