My mystery book group met this past weekend to discuss Josephine Tey’s mystery The Daughter of Time. In a way, I’d like to write simply that while it’s not a historical novel, it’s all about Richard III, that you have to be prepared for some serious history, and that it’s really good and I liked it a lot, and leave it at that. Because that it wasn’t historical fiction but was all about Richard III is all I knew about it when I picked the book up, and I’m glad I didn’t know more. So if you’re interested in reading this book, you might stop here.
I was glad not to know more because I was delighted to discover the structure of the novel: the fact that it takes place solely in a hospital room and that nothing happens action-wise except people coming and going, bringing books and having conversations about them. What an unusual structure for a mystery novel, and how cleverly done! I love that the mystery is entirely historical, about the question of whether Richard killed the two princes in the Tower and if he didn’t, then who did. (As a side note, I was in the Tower just a few weeks ago, and now I wish I’d read this book beforehand. They had an exhibit about the question of Richard’s guilt, and you could vote on who you think the murderer was. Alas, I can’t remember who the other options were.) I love that the mystery is solved solely through historical research and logical deduction. Although there’s a lot of intuition involved as well, as the whole mystery gets going when Tey’s detective, Grant, decides that Richard does not look like a murderer. He has this feeling, based on his years working with criminals, that Richard isn’t one.
I also loved how the mystery branches out from the question of who killed those princes to questions of history and history writing. As much as the characters research historical events, they also think a lot about how we learn history, what we remember and don’t remember from our history classes in school, the various ways history gets written, and why historical untruths get perpetuated. Tey is great at covering a whole lot of ground answering these questions without making it seem formulaic or contrived. Grant and his fellow researcher, Carradine, get a hold of history textbooks, historical fiction, scholarly tomes, and contemporary accounts and documents, and they survey various types of people on what they remember and what they believe about history, all without awkwardness in the narrative. And it turns out that history is shockingly unreliable. People believe things they’ve heard from authorities they no longer remember, and often those “authorities” turn out to be biased or lazy researchers or too busy looking at the larger picture to get the details right. And once people believe a certain thing, they resent finding out otherwise. Rather than accepting correction and being grateful for the truth, they get angry at the person bringing the news.
The book’s epigraph is “Truth is the daughter of time.” Wikipedia just told me that the full sentence is “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority,” from Francis Bacon. That explains the title — the idea that time will eventually lead to truth and will win out over so-called authorities — but I wonder how much the book really backs up that idea. Grant and Carradine are on a quest for truth, and at least within the frame of the book they find it, and yet theirs seems a lonely crusade in a world that seems determined to cling to falsehood. Carradine has decided by the end to write a book against “tonypandy,” their term for received versions of events that turn out to be false, but who can really win against common opinion that’s been passed down for generations? I’m not quite sure if this book is undermining the idea that time will bring us closer to truth, or, more simply, celebrating Grant and Carradine as savvier, smarter seekers of truth than most other people. What it certainly does do is celebrate the joy of research and discovery. Rarely in a novel is scholarly research shown in such detail and made to seem so much fun.
Grant is very suspicious of the way history gets written as narrative. He wants facts, concrete bits of information gleaned from primary sources, not the stories woven around those facts — or woven around no facts at all, which is often the case. But we can’t do without narrative — without turning history into a story. All Grant is doing is creating a counter-narrative to the one historians and textbooks have been telling all along. And that is what Tey is doing as well, of course, making the argument that by delving into facts and turning those facts into a narrative, the detective and the novelist — neither of whom are “authorities” — can reveal something true. Whether we believe it or not is another matter.
The opinions in my book group were generally positive, although not everyone liked Grant’s rather arrogant manner. The question arose of whether this book works well the second time around, and I’m wondering as well if I would like it as much if I were to read it again. Once you understand the premise and the trajectory of the book, it might not be as much fun to wade through all the historical details, which do take quite a lot of wading through. Anybody out there who has read this multiple times have opinions?
This is the second Tey mystery I’ve read, and both have done such interesting things with the genre that I’d like to read more. This one has practically no action directly described, and Miss Pym Disposes only turns into a mystery in the last 1/4 of the book and is as interested in psychology as an academic discipline as The Daughter of Time is interested in history. I’m looking forward to seeing what other unusual things Tey has done with the mystery genre.