Friday, June 24, 2011

Two for the Price of One

Tey, Josephine. The Daughter of Time. New York: Scribner, 1995.
(The book was originally published in 1951.)

Bob: What's that you're reading?
Emily: The Daughter of Time. It's this month's book for the Connecticut mystery book club.
Bob: Have you ever read it?
Emily: No.
Bob: Oh, it's a great book! It's one of the best mysteries ever written. Such a wonderful premise, a convalescent solving a hundreds-year-old mystery.

Bob's not the first person I know to feel thus. I can't tell you how many people have recommended this book to me over the past 20+ or so years. He may not be right about its being one of the best mysteries ever written. He and I are not the fairest judges of that, since "mystery" is a very small piece of each of our "genres most read" pies. But he's absolutely right about the premise being a wonderful one.

If "mystery" takes up a small piece of my pie, then "historical fiction" takes up a tiny sliver. That's probably why I've been meaning to read this one for so long but have never gotten around to it until now. I mistakenly thought it was set in 15th-century England. Blink, and the fluttering of your lashes might accidentally blow away the "mystery cum historical fiction" thread resting on top of my pie. Despite recommendations from those who've never failed me, I wasn't keen on reading something from that genre. My readers' advisors know better than I, and I should've locked my noisy biases in a soundproof closet and listened to said advisors instead.

The book, which is not set in Medieval England, is superb. It's actually set in mid-20th-century England, where our "hero" Inspector Alan Grant is in the hospital, recuperating from a bad fall. Not only is the premise a good one, but Tey had a great sense of humor, and it's very funny in places. You can see what I mean from this description of how Grant landed in a hospital bed:

Grant was bed-borne, and a charge on The Midget [one of the nurses who attends him and who, despite her diminutive size, has no problem, apparently, tossing about mattresses and maneuvering the injured bodies of men who are, like Grant, 6'+ tall] and The Amazon [his other nurse, taken to heavy breathing at the slightest exertion] because he had fallen through a trap door. This, of course, was the absolute in humiliation; compared with which the heavings of The Amazon and the light slingings of The Midget were a mere corollary. To fall through a trap-door was the ultimate in absurdity; pantomimic, bathetic, grotesque. (12)

Grant lies in his hospital bed, his sharp mind used to being put to work solving crimes, with nothing better to do than to stare at the ceiling and to try to forget his humiliation. He's disdainful of the books kind souls have brought him to read and is the sort of patient you can easily imagine is driving the poor nurses nuts. That is, until his friend Marta decides to give him something to do.

Marta determines that he needs to spend his time solving some sort of old, unsolved mystery, some classic event that has always posed a puzzle. The next time she visits, she brings an envelope stuffed with copies of portraits. Grant becomes fixated on Richard III, England's notorious murderer, long assumed to have killed his two young nephews in order to grab the throne.

Grant can't see a murderer in the portrait he's given, and so he begins his intellectual quest to discover what he can about the man and the murders of the young Princes Richard and Edward (interestingly enough, bearing the names of their uncle and his brother who fathered them). He starts with standard history texts -- not the least bit enlightening -- and moves on to other works. Eventually, he pairs up with a young American friend of Marta's, and, together, they dig deeper and deeper to see what they can find.

Tey's novel is fascinating on so many levels. First of all, I (like most of the book's characters) only had vague recollections of the story of the two princes, although I do know that by the time I was learning about them, they were more of a mystery than they seem to have been to the characters in Tey's book. It seems to have been a commonly accepted notion in her day that the hunch-backed Richard III (so popularized by Shakespeare) smothered the boys, who were imprisoned in The Tower. I seem to recall being presented with an unsolved disappearance that may or may not have been a murder instigated by their uncle. Reading the book, I wondered how much of an influence Tey had had on the story. She was certainly no Shakespeare, but still, Shakespeare proves how easily history can be influenced by popular culture.

That leads me to the whole subject of history and fiction. What Grant discovers, of course, is that "history" can be written by those who would prefer the masses to believe a fiction. Tey points out, for comparison to the history of Richard III, other "historic events" people have taken as gospel that have proven themselves to be grossly exaggerated and false. She also points out how reluctant people are to accept challenges to these inaccuracies when they are raised, noting that they're more likely to blame the contemporary messenger digging up evidence rather than the messenger who may have had something to gain by garbling the account in the first place back when the event occurred.

I also couldn't help thinking about the whole weird concept of royalty and family. I know it's been addressed since the beginning of time, but imagine having the power to execute your brother or sister. You get mad; you kill your brother. Anyone else in your kingdom would be hanged or beheaded for murder, but you can get away with that old, proverbial murder. Despite my life-long fascination with family dynamics and psychology, I'd never really considered all the implications of that (another whole blog post in and of itself) until reading this book.

I do have one, very minor, complaint to launch against this excellent read and its writer. As is so often the case when English writers try to portray Americans (especially back in pre-television/Internet, etc. days), Grant's American partner in crime-solving's dialogue is a little off kilter. For instance, at one point, he (Carradine) says,

"Goldarn it, what did I do with it? Here we are." (p. 118)

Okay, maybe I know nothing about 1951. Maybe Americans really did say "goldarn it" all the time back then. I find it hard to believe, however. I happen to have read plenty of American novels written around that time, and I don't think I've ever come across a character who said, "Goldarn it." Perhaps, I've heard it uttered in some play or movie from that era, written by someone trying to portray an ignorant and/or naïve Southerner or Kansan in some sort of exaggerated fashion that's completely inaccurate, but certainly no "blue blood" Northeasterner, which Carradine was, would use such language. He also (again, unless times have changed dramatically since 1951, and maybe they have) wouldn't quickly have gone from "goldarn it" to,

"The sainted More makes me sick at the stomach but I'll listen." (p. 119)

He surely would have told us,

"The sainted More makes me sick to my stomach but I'll listen." (He also would've stuck a comma in before the conjunction, being properly American bred and educated, but he's being polite and adhering to the consistency of British rules of grammar in this British publication, so we'll leave him alone.)

But you've heard me complain before about Americans trying to write England and the English trying to write America. I'm very hard to please when it comes to that, and it's truly a minor irritation in this otherwise flawless story. I'm so very glad I finally read this one (thank you, John, for choosing it). If you've been meaning to get around to it yourself, I promise you won't be disappointed when you do.

I missed posting on last month's mystery book choice, so here it is as well:

Grafton, Sue. T is for Trespass. New York: G.P. Putnam, 2007.

A near-eternity ago, when Sue Grafton had only written something like six books, I read the first two. I liked them well enough, but I wasn't as in to the mystery genre back then, feeling it was enough that I'd already committed myself to reading every Linda Barnes mystery as she published it (she was less prolific. Even so, I eventually abandoned her as well), and so I didn't continue with the series. I've been meaning to pick her back up for years, so I was very happy when this one was chosen for the CT mystery book club.

What made it even better was that I started reading this one while I was in California. Grafton's Kinsey Millhone lives and works in Santa Teresa, which is a very thinly disguised Santa Barbara. Since I happened to be in Santa Barbara, I was easily able to imagine much of what Kinsey describes in her telling of the story.

This is the tale of a true sociopath who happens to move into Kinsey's neighborhood to provide nursing care for its resident grouchy old man. Kinsey suspects something isn't quite right from the get-go, and, of course, her instincts prove her to be correct. By the time she figures out what's happening, the reader is already well aware of the psychotic qualities of the home care nurse, because interspersed with Kinsey's first-person accounts are third-person accounts that give us this creepy sociopath's story. This could have been an awkward technique, could have made the book seem disjointed, but Grafton did it well, and it worked for me.

This was a good, solid mystery/thriller (although not of the whodunit sort, since we know who the "bad guy" is from the get-go). Typically, I prefer mysteries in which I'm trying to figure out the puzzle of who killed The Body, but I really liked this one. That's a credit to Grafton's writing and the endearing character she's created in Kinsey (I like my private investigators to be endearing. I also like female p.i.'s, because they tend to be so outnumbered by males in the genre).

One thing I found interesting is that Grafton chose to set the book in 1987. That's around the same time I read those first two books, and it's a clever ploy on her part (I'm assuming here that all her books are set back in time), because she doesn't have to worry about aging Kinsey as the years go by, or keeping her forever young, even though she's been around since the 1980s, the way so many other mystery writers do. However, doing so can lead to problems. Grafton is good (an excellent writer, really), but I'm pretty sure there were a few mistakes in which Kinsey makes references to things that didn't exist in 1987. It wasn't enough to distract me, though. In fact, I can't even remember exactly what they were.

I know I say this about almost every author we read for the book club, but I must read more in the series. I really might this time, though, as I have an ARC for S is for Silence, and I just picked up at a book swap party O is for Outlaw and P is for Peril. I'm planning on doing something really weird: reading them backwards. Anyone have copies of Q and R they'd like to give me?


Anonymous said...

It's been years since I read the Tey book, but I enjoyed it a lot. I don't remember the "Americanisms" - that made me laugh.

Lisa said...

I think your views of Daughter of Time would have been in line with our book club discussion. And of course, you were missed!

Everyone seemed to enjoy the experience of reading the book. We were all impressed that she managed to pull of the task of unfolding a mystery from hundreds of year ago through dialogue, with no action, and with the detective flat on his back in a hospital room.

We talked quite a bit about Tey's very contemporary skepticism about history and historical authority. I fear I enjoyed the book the least, but I still liked it quite a bit.

Unfortunately, my expectations were much too high, as I'd seen it topping several Best Mysteries Ever sort of lists, besting Chandler, Hammett, Collins, etc. In my mind this was a very capable, clever, readable mystery, but not a classic in the same league of others we've read. Still, it was better than most.

Emily Barton said...

Lilian, I wouldn't think the Americanisms would be the sort of thing most people would remember. Glad to have made you laugh.

Lisa, sorry, as always, that I don't live in Connecticut and can't join in person. (Sat. afternoon meetings are actually do-able for me, but didn't work this go-round). I couldn't help thinking while reading it that Tey's skepticism might have been heavily influenced by the fact she was writing so soon after WWII: imagine former Nazis' take on their experiences. I can't remember where, but somewhere in the book, I think she hints heavily at that.

Dorothy W. said...

I really enjoyed this book a lot -- I liked her exploration of the unreliability of history writing especially. And I also loved the opening pages where she is making fun of contemporary fiction. One interesting question came up, though, which is whether this book stands up to a second reading. Mike read it for the second time and didn't like it nearly as much the second time as the first. I'm not sure what my experience would be.

Stefanie said...

Goldarn it, the Tey book sounds pretty good. I'm not much of a mystery reader, but this one I just might like.

Carrie K said...

I loved Daughter of Time. It's probably why I think Richard III got a bad rap.

Oh, Sue Grafton. I really liked the Kinsey Milhone books but I abandoned them right about the time she found her grandmother and they were starting to come out two or three years apart. It was like seeing an old friend who was, literally, stuck in the past. A little creepy. She should have gone the Robert B Parker route but I do admire the effort.

Emily Barton said...

Stef, goldarnit is right: always a nuisance when someone adds books to your TBR tome from genres you don't typically read, isn't it? I do think you'd like it, though.

Carrie, yes, after reading it, I think he got a bad rap, too. Wishing for the millionth time I had a time machine, so I could go back and see what really happened.

We'll see how far I get with my plans to read more Kinsey Milhone.

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, oh, I loved the way she made fun of contemporary fiction, too. That's an interesting point about reading the second go-around. Maybe I'll try it one day.

litlove said...

I really enjoyed Dorothy's post on the Tey book and yours continues to encourage me to read it. I loved Brat Farrar and Miss Pym Disposes but then read a couple of duds by her and stopped going through her back catalogue. I'm also a Sue Grafton fan, although I have to leave several months between each book as the formula is sort of obvious - but it's a good formula! I like it!

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, do read it. I can't imagine you won't like it. I imagine Sue Grafton and her formula are a lot like Janet Evanovich and her formula, so leaving several months between each book is a good way to read her.