Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time (1951)

Two weeks ago we were all down with stomach flu while in Normandy, so I spent an inordinate amount of time in bed with a book… and lucky for me, my choice of books for the short holidays proved wise, The Daughter of Time is probably one of the most entertaining books I read this year! (There’s nothing worse than being stuck out of home, sick and without a proper thing to read… the only option left is then the midday tv rerun shows which are so bad you might find yourself even sicker).

But before that, let me tell you how I got to this book. The Daughter of Time is a mystery classics, deemed one of the 100 best mysteries of all time in a little guide book I have, but I’m generally fearful of those lists. So I got this battered copy from… Philippines, through a generous Bookmooch member. I like the fact that this copy (a US edition from 1977) has travelled half the world to reach me. It somehow adds to the mystery.

Now, for the story, it’s no less than a new take on Richard III murder of the Princes in the Tower. Inspector Grant (a recurring character in Tey’s mysteries, so I understand) is bed-ridden in a hospital and bored to death, when a friend suggests him to busy himself with portraits of famous historical criminals. Richard III, the ugly and evil hunchback from Shakespeare’s play, is given another chance when Grant discovers his portrait as a nice and rather dignified man. Grant’s intuition leads him to prove the King’s innocence, demonstrating that the murder of his own nephews in 1483 is more than improbable.

I will leave the details to you, but I got a refresher course in British history which I’d never bothered to pay attention to (royalties and dynasties are Mr. Smithereens’ forte, not mine). I’m normally completely impervious to complex family trees (the very notion of who is the cousin twice removed of the second daughter of my aunt escapes me even when there is an inheritance at stake), so I’m quite proud to have been able to follow the complexities of Richard III immediate parentage, although I skipped the part on the war of the Roses. (Isn’t it awful that history courses in high school are so focused on national history?)

I liked the sarcastic tone of the story, I really laughed out loud more than once. Here is a glimpse on the first chapter:

Grant lay on his high white cot and stared at the ceiling. […] He had suggested to The Midget that she might turn his bed around a little so that he could have a new patch of ceiling to explore. But it seemed that that would spoil the symmetry of the room, and in hospitals symmetry ranked just a short head behind cleanliness and a whole length in front of Godliness. Anything out of this parallel was hospital profanity. Why didn’t he read? she asked. Why didn’t he go on reading some of those expensive brand-new novels that his friends kept on bringing him?
“There are far too many people born into the world, and far too many words written. Millions and millions of them pouring from the presses every minute. It’s a horrible thought.”
“You sound constipated,” said The Midget.
The Midget was Nurse Ingham, and she was in sober fact a very nice five-feet-two, with everything in just proportion. Grant called her The Midget to compensate himself for being bossed around by a piece of Dresden china which he could pick up in one hand. When he was on his feet, that is to say.

Then Grant sets about describing the pile of bestsellers waiting to be read on his bedside table. Just to give a sample:

The Sweat and the Furrow was Silas Weekley being earthly and spade-conscious all over seven hundred pages. The situation, to judge from the first paragraph, had not materially changed since Silas’s last book: mother lying-in with her eleventh upstairs, father laid-out after his ninth downstairs, eldest son lying to the Government in the cow-shed, eldest daughter lying with her lover in the hayloft, everyone else lying low in the barn. The rain dripped from the thatch, and the manure steamed in the midden. Silas never omitted the manure. It was not Silas’s fault that its steam provided the only uprising element in the picture. If Silas could have discovered a brand of steam that steam downwards, Silas would have introduced it.

Sounds like a great book, isn’t it? Josephine Tey’s wit throughout the book was probably the best medicine.


6 thoughts on “Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time (1951)

  1. running over to amazon (well, running via the internet…you know what I mean) to add this to my tbr list and THEN to look up a list of the top 100 mysteries…I need more guidance when I go to the library than my own memory, sadly!

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