Get the Crime Reads BriefThank you for subscribing!
- The Cartography of WolvesApril 22, 2021
CrimeReads on TwitterMy Tweets
From time to time, audiences ask crime writers who we would choose if we could have a single new novel from a dead crime writer. The name that comes up most frequently is not Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle or Raymond Chandler. It’s not even one of the more recently deceased such as Reginald Hill or Elmore Leonard. No, the writer’s choice of fantasy reprise is a reclusive Scottish spinster who wrote only a handful of crime novels. The writer we pick above all others is Josephine Tey.
Partly that’s because of the range and quality of the work itself. Reading Tey for the ﬁrst time is a surprise and a delight; rereading her provokes the same response. But to my mind, of equal importance is Tey’s role as a bridge between the classic detective stories of the Golden Age and contemporary crime ﬁction. She left the genre in a diﬀerent place from where she found it and she cracked open a series of doors for others to walk through.
But ﬁrst, a little about the woman and her work. And where the woman is concerned, it will be a little. Elizabeth Mackintosh aka Gordon Daviot aka Josephine Tey was pathologically private. She never gave interviews, posed for publicity photos only under duress and managed to keep her private life a mystery. In the last year of her life, when she knew she was dying, she avoided contact even with her closest friends because she didn’t want anyone to know. Add to that the fascination in her ﬁction with questions of identity and gender, and the idea of a deep dark secret is irresistible. But sadly, at this distance, if there was such a secret, it’s probably destined to remain hidden.
What we do know is this. She was born in Inverness in 1896, which makes her an exact contemporary of my grandmother (who I cannot imagine exploring the issues that fascinated Tey…). Her father was a fruiterer, her mother a teacher, and Tey followed in her mother’s footsteps, taking advantage of her physical agility to train as a gymnastics teacher at a college near Birmingham—a long way from Inverness, in every sense.
The First World War was at its height, and there are hints that Tey suﬀered a tragic loss during that conﬂict, though no details persist. Besides, it would be hard to ﬁnd anyone in Britain untouched by grief in those four years. But she was a long way from home, and if she had a personal tragedy to cope with, it may well be that the roots of her self-containment were planted then.
While she was still a student, she ran ﬁtness classes for factory workers and in the holidays, she volunteered as a nurse for convalescing soldiers. After she qualiﬁed, she taught PE. While she was teaching in Oban, she was injured in an accident involving a piece of gym equipment, an incident she adapted for the murder method in Miss Pym Disposes in the fashion of the true writer who wastes no experience. But before she had published a thing, her mother died, and when she was thirty, Tey returned to Inverness to keep house for her widowed father.
One advantage of removing herself from the world of routine work was that it gave her time to practise her craft as a ﬂedgling writer. And three years later, in 1929, her ﬁrst attempt at detective ﬁction, The Man in the Queue, won a mystery novel prize run by the publishing house Dutton. The book was published under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot, a name she later used as a playwright and writer of historical ﬁction. It was also the name she liked friends and associates to use in her private life.
It would be another seven years before she returned to the mystery novel, for her next breakthrough was a life-changer. She wrote a play about Richard II, Richard of Bordeaux, which was produced in 1932 in London’s West End starring John Gielgud, and which became the theatrical sensation of the year. It pried Tey loose from the narrow conﬁnes of Inverness society and gave her another life amidst the glamour and excitement of the theatrical world.
But her subsequent dramatic works were signiﬁcantly less successful than her early triumph, and Tey returned to prose ﬁction, choosing the Tey pseudonym, presumably to distinguish the two strands of her work. Seven years after her debut, a second novel appeared featuring the same detective, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard. A Shilling for Candles used Tey’s experience of working with actors, centring on the apparent suicide of a beautiful young ﬁlm actress. Grant’s entrée into the world of the theatre comes in the shape of Marta Hallard, a successful actress who, in the hands of a more conventional writer, would have become Grant’s love interest. Instead, she remains a loving but platonic friend, a decision on the part of the writer which is unconventional enough to be a striking choice.Grant has some evident roots in Golden Age ﬁction…but what he also displays is a sexual ambiguity found nowhere else in the crime ﬁction of the period.
She wrote a further four novels featuring Grant, including the posthumous The Singing Sands, all of which stand out for their unorthodox approach to the character of the police detective. Grant has some evident roots in Golden Age ﬁction—he has the sensitivity of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion and the cultural reﬁnement of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn—but what he also displays is a sexual ambiguity found nowhere else in the crime ﬁction of the period.
And nowhere is that more apparent than in her ﬁnal novel. As The Singing Sands opens, Grant is taking leave from his Scotland Yard job because he’s going through a kind of breakdown. He can’t sleep, he’s suffering from panic attacks and claustrophobia and he’s in the grip of some sort of depression. It’s hard to imagine Hercule Poirot in the throes of such psychological torment. It’s certainly impossible to picture any of the hard-boiled American heroes revealing a similar vulnerability. Already the convention of the capable and emotionally resilient detective was well established as the norm in the genre. When male characters revealed such weakness and sensitivity, it was generally code for suggesting they were homosexual.
Tey would have been aware of this. And as a counterweight to this implication, in The Singing Sands, she provides Grant with the ﬁrst serious love interest in the series. Grant has escaped from London to ﬁsh on his cousin’s estate in Scotland. He has barely arrived when Zoë, Lady Kentallen, a widowed mother of three sons, also pitches up for a visit. Here is how Tey describes her through Grant’s eyes: “. . . she was more like an adolescent boy than a prospective dowager. She was wearing very elegant trousers and a disreputable old lumber jacket, and he remarked . . . that she was one of the few women who looked really well in trousers.”
One magical afternoon ﬁshing the River Turlie later, Grant is contemplating the possibility of marriage to this androgynous woman. But what proves far more seductive is his previous encounter with a dead man on the Caledonian sleeper, a dead man with “the tumbled black hair and the reckless eyebrows.” Finding the key to unlock this mysterious death obsesses Grant to the point where he comes to his senses and realises the idea of marrying Zoë Kentallen is ridiculous. It’s an extreme reaction—most single men faced with the prospect of a ravishingly attractive widow who shares their background and interests would, at the very least, pursue the possibility of a relationship. Not Grant. And this is of a piece with the way Tey deals with gender and sexuality in her work.
Questions of identity permeate her novels. Brat Farrar hinges on whether a young man is truly who he purports to be; The Franchise Affair turns on whether a mother and daughter have a secret life that verges on the perverse; Miss Pym Disposes is only a mystery because issues of sexuality were so deeply submerged in that time and place that they were unthinkable as part of the solution to a crime; To Love and Be Wise is entirely shaped by ﬁxed notions of gender. Masks and the identities they hide run through her work like the unifying thread in a tapestry.
And it is that fascination with who we really are and what actually shapes our relationships that is the key to Tey’s role as the bridge between the Golden Age and contemporary crime ﬁction. She started writing at a time when the genre appeared only to have space for the most conventional of connections between men and women and where secrets were only valid when they had a direct bearing on the commission of a murder, either as clear motive or as red herring. Even then, those secrets were deﬁned within relatively narrow tramlines. Con- ventional secrets, you might say. Secrets my granny would have understood.Tey opened up the possibility of unconventional secrets. Homosexual desire, cross-dressing, sexual perversion—they were all hinted at, glimpsed in the shadows as a door closed or a curtain twitched.
But Tey opened up the possibility of unconventional secrets. Homosexual desire, cross-dressing, sexual perversion—they were all hinted at, glimpsed in the shadows as a door closed or a curtain twitched. Tey was never vulgar or titillating; she left space for the reader to forge their own understanding of what was underpinning her characters’ behaviour. Nevertheless, her world revealed a diﬀerent set of psychological motivations.
Without Tey cracking open the door, I don’t know how easy it would have been for writers such as Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell to have begun their own explorations of the darker side of human identity and sexuality. I know myself that reading Tey for the ﬁrst time was like taking a lungful of pure air. I realised that crime ﬁction could be so much more than the bloodless entertainment I’d been enjoying up to that point. And her work helped me to understand that I could write books that dealt with serious aspects of human behaviour within the conﬁnes of genre ﬁction.
This all makes Tey sound very worthy. Someone we should read because of her place in the canon. But she is so much more than that. She writes vividly, painting pictures for the mind’s eye. Here is how The Singing Sands opens. “It was six o’clock of a March morning, and still dark. The long train came sidling through the scattered lights of the yard, clicking gently over the points. Into the glow of the signal cabin and out again. Under the solitary emerald among the rubies on the signal bridge. On towards the empty grey waste of platform that waited under the arcs.” You don’t even have to close your eyes to see that short ﬁlm rolling in your head.
That lucid descriptive style works just as well on character as it does on landscape. Tey was a shrewd observer of people in all walks of life and of all ages. In a few strokes of the pen, she brings them to life, provoking smiles and nods of recognition in her readers. We’ve all experienced curmudgeons like Murdo Gallacher, the surly train conductor. We’ve all known small boys like Grant’s irresistible young cousin Patrick. But she goes beyond familiar stereotypes to give those characters individual lives and opinions. Her bleakly, blackly comedic Scottish nationalist Wee Archie has never had more resonance, and leaves us in no doubt where his creator stood in the independence debate.
And she tells a good story. We read on because we love the characters but also because we want to know how the story plays out. There are mysteries to be solved here, genuine puzzles that keep us questioning to the very end. And unlike the Golden Age writers, Tey has the nerve to provide us with resolutions that are not always neat or conventional but are invariably unsettling.
In my dreams, I imagine someone buying an old desk in a Highland auction room. And in that desk, a secret drawer. And in that drawer, an undiscovered Josephine Tey.
Until then, I will have to content myself with happy rereading. If this is your ﬁrst time as a guest of Josephine Tey’s imagination, I guarantee it won’t be your last.
The Folio Society presents the works of Josephine Tey
Artwork by Mark Smith