Old British Mysteries and a Cup of Tea

Nov. 20, 2010

Recent tweets about female British mystery writers reminded me of how I was introduced to mysteries, and inspired me to revisit the very first one I read: The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey.

I must admit that early in my life I was a bit of a snob when it came to mysteries. It was only when my father-in-law suggested that I read one that I thought there might be something to it. He was a soft-spoken, well-read, academic man, and was the University Librarian at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon for much of his career. He read widely and voraciously, and loved mysteries. So, when he suggested that I try reading Josephine Tey, I took his opinion seriously and even though I had my doubts, I thought I would give it a try.

What a brilliant suggestion that was. The Daughter of Time is no ordinary mystery. Instead of puzzling over a current murder, we are taken on a fascinating journey, examining the character of someone thought to have committed murder over 400 years ago. The question is whether this man is the evil mastermind behind the crime or whether he has been maligned by historians all this time.

The story starts off with our hero, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, confined to bed in hospital, with a broken leg. To help relieve his boredom, a friend brings him a package of portraits to examine, as Grant has a reputation for being quite good at the study of faces. In the lot is one of a serious man, someone used to power and responsibility, who had perhaps been ill as a child. Grant is astounded when he discovers that he is looking at a portrait of Richard III. He is amazed, and disappointed with himself. How could he not see evil in that face? He spends many hours simply staring at the portrait, trying to see what must have escaped him. After much reflection, and discussion with others, he decides to take his detective skills back in time and find out as much as he can about Richard. He needs to know how a man with the face of a judge could have committed the heinous crimes of which he is accused.

Tey takes us on a journey through history, examining contemporary letters and documents, and reading from history books that we discover are based on no more than hearsay. Although the events in question took place hundreds of years ago, there is still a feeling of suspense, and there is outrage and sadness for the innocent victims. After all, two young princes did disappear and were probably murdered. The question is, was it the uncle, Richard III, who was behind the murders, or someone else? Tey’s wit and intelligence draw the reader into the mystery and we are as enthralled with Grant’s study of Richard and his time, as he is.

Tey’s book, published in 1951, was key in rekindling interest in Richard and the controversy over his portrayal by such well-known authors as Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare. Her facts and her research, her questioning of historical truth, all told in her typical amusing style, reached many more people as a mystery novel than any history text could ever have done. The Richard III Society was re-established and became even stronger in its mission to clear Richard’s name. It boasts thousands of members from around the world, and nowadays, most historians at least acknowledge the possibility that Richard may not have been as villainous as previously thought.

Of course, as my father-in-law foresaw, I was hooked by Tey. Her beautiful language, colourful characters, and fascinating puzzle intrigued me, and I devoured her other mysteries. Next on the list was Dorothy L. Sayers, then P.D. James, Ngaio Marsh, and the race was on. What fun discovering and getting to know all those authors and their characters. I loved Lord Peter and Harriet Vane and hoped so much that they would get together. Adam Dalgleish’s poetry showed a sensitive, vulnerable side that made him all the more appealing. And I absolutely adored Detective Chief-Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard, and his talented artist wife Agatha Troy. All of them became like old friends, and I could hardly wait to read the next book and find out what was happening to them.

Eventually, I moved on to include modern mysteries from all over the world, but I am still partial to the older Brits. Their mystery stories never seem as violent or threatening or oppressive as current ones. I find them relaxing, perhaps because of their slower pace from an earlier time, and because of the associations they have for me from my initial reading of them. When we visited my in-laws we would all settle in the family room after dinner, my father-in-law with his pipe, and his book or cryptic crossword; the rest of the family would read or contribute desultorily to his cryptic clues (he certainly didn’t need help from any of us!) It was very calm and peaceful and I have fond memories of those cozy evenings..

So, if you haven’t yet discovered their charm, curl up on the couch with a Tey (or a Marsh or a Sayers), a nice hot cup of tea, then relax and escape to another time and place.


  1. So glad you posted the link to this sweet remembrance again! These are the authors that made and kept me a crime fiction fan. Your father-in-law did a lovely thing introducing you to Tey.

  2. Oh Lynne he certainly did and I am forever grateful to him. What wonderful books I've enjoyed because of his suggestion!

  3. Poor Richard Plantagent had the misfortune to be succeeded by the Tudors, a dynasty that were patrons of the greatest playwright of the English language, and they used him to justify their own actions in taking over the throne. It would be a kind of justice if more people read The Daughter of Time and learned from that excellent novel that Shakespeare' Richard III is mere propaganda.

  4. So nice to hear from other Josephine Tey fans and Richard III sympathizers. I have told many people about this book and about the idea that Richard III was not the villain portrayed by Shakespeare but he did much too good a job and it will be a long time before the Richard III society can convince people otherwise.