The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Image result for the daughter of timeI picked up a second-hand copy of The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey in Leakey's Bookshop in Inverness just before Christmas. I had never read anything by Tey before but knew that she was a respected mystery writer in the golden age of detective fiction and that The Daughter of Time is her best-known book.

It isn't, however, a conventional whodunnit. The detective, Scotland Yard's Alan Grant, is bed-bound in hospital for the duration of the novel after an accident. Struggling with boredom and unable to engage with any of the books he's been given by well-meaning visitors, he embarks on a historical puzzle instead, one that he can attempt to fathom out entirely in his head. After a conversation with his actress friend Marta about a portrait of Richard III, Grant has a nagging doubt that Richard was not, as he was conventionally believed to be, responsible for the deaths of his young nephews, the doomed 'Princes in the Tower', and sets out to prove it from his hospital bed.

Naturally, a detective confined to a hospital bed poses some limitations on the action. Much of Grant's research is done from books brought to him by Marta and the two nurses who care for him (The Midget and The Amazon, as he uncharitably calls them), but he also has the help of a young American student, Brent Carradine, to whom Marta introduces him. Brent's role is to seek out official records and documents and to piece together the events that shaped Richard's claim to the throne and what might have happened before, during and immediately after his short reign.

The historical mystery itself is an fascinating one, despite the second-hand nature of the details which are mostly related by either Alan or Brent based on what they've read and deduced. I think it probably helps a little if you have at least a vague knowledge of Richard III and Henry Tudor and their place in history, but it's certainly not essential. As Grant works his way through numerous different accounts of Richard's reign - beginning with an old children's text book, moving on to a novel and eventually more detailed academic works and contemporary accounts of Richard's character - points are also made about looking critically at sources. This is a mystery about the nature of truth and what we collectively come to believe - which feels very relevant in today's climate of 'fake news'.

However, the fact remains that this a detective story in which the detective cannot meet or interview any of the characters or look at any physical clues - and it's Brent who does most of the actual research, reporting back on what he finds. As such, it does feel very static and impersonal. I also found Grant himself a fairly unappealing protagonist. His initial decision to investigate Richard III stems from his firmly-held conviction that he can tell from someone's facial features whether they have criminal tendencies, which is clearly a belief that's both scientifically and ethically questionable. I also cringed at his snobbery towards the nurses, which also borders on misogyny at times. The book was published in 1951, so of course I'd expect social attitudes to be different, but even allowing for the period I found Grant irksome. Fortunately, Marta and Brent are a great deal more likeable. If anything, I'd have preferred a novel led by them.

I enjoyed the central mystery and its conclusion, and the engaging, page-turning nature of the investigation itself. Tey brings a real pace to what is essentially a piece of historical research, and I found the musings on Richard's personality and character fascinating. But ultimately, I'd have enjoyed it just as much if it had been written as non-fiction - possibly, given my issues with Alan Grant, somewhat more.