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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Scribner, 206 pages, $15 (c1951)

Daughter of Time has been declared one of the best mysteries ever (Crime Writers Association, New York Times). Josephine Tey is an exalted “mystery author,” right up there with Dorothy Sayers, from the classic era of mysteries. What endears authors like Tey and Sayers to new generations of readers is the fact that they are good writers. Period. There is a lot of hoo-hah about “genre” writing and labeling these days, but good writing is good writing. Mystery/crime/thriller/suspense writers just happen to be darned clever as well. Oh, excuse me, am I biased?

Tey’s writing is lively, sophisticated, and informative. “Informative” is a buzzkill kind of word, I know, but it surely applies here. I don’t know what the history poobahs think of Tey’s thesis that Richard III did not kill his nephews, but Tey adeptly presents real information (even if some of the sources quoted are fictitious) and makes it entertaining.

Tey’s series star, Inspector Alan Grant, has been injured in the course of duty, and he’s stuck in a hospital bed for a long stay. Helpful friends drop off the latest books, none of which suit his personality or interest. Bored to tears, Grant is finally saved by his actress friend Marta. She brings a sheaf of portrait prints. Faces fascinate Grant, and before he’s quite aware of it, he has picked a face out of the pile. A judge, he thinks, before he learns the identity of the face. Of course, it is Richard III, mostly vilified in history textbooks and in popular folklore as the murderer of his two nephews in order to become king of England.

With the help of an American researcher, an odd fellow recruited by Marta, Grant embarks on an historical journey 400 years in the past.

What an original idea! And it is a stroke of genius. How in all heck did Tey craft such a compelling story out of what is essentially a lesson in historical research?

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