The Best Novel You’ve Never Heard Of

The Best Novel You’ve Never Heard Of June 16, 2015

It’s a mystery where the mystery is 500 years old, and everyone already knows the solution. Or at least they think they do.

The elusive Miss Tey, one of only a few photos of her.
The elusive Miss Tey, one of only a few photos of her.

The detective is stuck in a hospital bed for the entire novel.

There is no action whatsoever. We never leave the hospital room.

Only three characters have any kind of substantial roles, and only a handful of other characters appear at all.

It was voted Number One on the list of Top Crime Novels of All Time by the Crime Writer’s Association (UK) in 1990.

And it is, indeed, the greatest mystery novel of all time.

The book is The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. I have an omnibus of Tey novels I’d never cracked, but I first heard about this one on a BBC radio show when Peter Hitchens described it as the most important novel he’s ever read. We’ll get to his reasons for saying that in a moment (and they’re good reasons), but who is this author and what is this strange book?

Josephine Tey was the pseudonym of respected playwrite Gordon Daviot, whose “Richard of Bordeaux” ran for 14 months in London and helped make John Gielgud a star. Daviot, it turned out, was also a pseudonym. The real author of all these works was Elizabeth Macintosh, but even that doesn’t tell us much, because Macintosh was intensely private and we know very little about her life. She even kept her final illness a secret, and her few friends, such as Gielgud, only learned about her death when her obituary appeared.

What does matter is that she could write like gangbusters. She shows off a bit of this skill as she assesses and imitates different types of novel which people keep leaving with her hero. One is a typical agrarian novel:

The Sweat and the Furrow was Silas Weekley being earthy 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 cowshed, eldest daughter lying with her lover in the hay-loft, 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 up-rising element the picture. If Silas could have discovered a brand of steam that steamed downward, Silas would have introduced it.

That’s just damn good writing.

In The Daughter of Time, Tey’s series detective, Scotland Yard’s Alan Grant, is stuck in bed with a broken leg, being driven batty by boredom. His friend Marta brings an envelope full of engravings to help him pass that time. Grant likes to read faces. He claims he can tell whether a person is a judge or a defendant by just looking at his face. Among the pictures is a print of King Richard III, and this one begins to work on him.

He knows what schoolboys know about Richard: crouchback, the monster who killed the boys in the tower and stole the crown before suffering an ignominious death on the field at Bosworth.

But of course, that’s Shakespeare, not history.

Grant starts to read about Richard, first in schoolbooks, and then with the help of a researcher at the British Museum, he drills down through layers of legend and pseudo-fact. It’s an interesting process, beginning with the kind of common knowledge everything assumes to be true, then peeling away layers like an onion. He doesn’t start with the goal of proving Richard innocent of the murders, but as “facts” are revealed to be mere propaganda and lies, the real story slowly emerges.

And it is absolutely gripping. Grant gets new material (from books, friends, or research), ponders and discusses it, and one by one two tales are told.

The first is a tale of research. Call it a Research Thriller. Anyone who knows the real thrill of discovery when you’re deep in researching a topic (and readers of some of my longer pieces know I’ve experienced it myself) will understand how engrossing this can be. It’s true detection: finding data, interpreting it, and slotting it into the larger puzzle.

The second is the tale of Richard III, the rise of the utterly vile Tudors in the form of Henry VII, and the disappearance of the princes in the tower. If you think you know this story, you don’t. It may or may not prove that Richard is innocent to your satisfaction, but it will raise a lot of hard-to-answer questions. It will make you want to read more on the subject. And there’s plenty to read.

But its most important quality is the way it cuts through received wisdom to get to truth. This is the reason Peter Hitchens singled it out:

I found myself describing ‘The Daughter of Time’ as ‘one of the most important books ever written’. The words came unbidden to my tongue, but I don’t, on reflection retreat from them. Josephine Tey’s clarity of mind, and her loathing of fakes and of propaganda, are like pure, cold spring water in a weary land. Her story-telling ability is apparently effortless (and therefore you may be sure it was the fruit of great hard work. (As Ernest Hemingway said ‘if it reads easy, that is because it was writ hard’) . But what she loves above all is to show that things are very often not what they seem to be, that we are too easily fooled, that ready acceptance of conventional wisdom is not just dangerous, but a result of laziness, incuriosity and of a resistance to reason.

Yes, exactly. Tey offers one piece of “fact” after another, and then explodes it with a reference to a primary resource that directly disproves it. We learn how rumor and propaganda (specifically Tudor propaganda, of which Shakespeare, peace be upon him, was a master hand) utterly replaced hard fact, and how even subsequent historians merely folded these facts into the old narrative without bothering to see how they make that narrative impossible.

As Grant says about the historians he’s reading, “They seem to have no talent for the likeliness of any situation. They see history like a peep-show; with two-dimensional figures against a distant background.”

Catholics will recognize this immediately because it’s the dominant narrative of mainstream Church history today. The church certainly has her share of dark and shameful moments, but the exaggerated quality of this narrative–the millions tortured and killed, the oppression, the damage done to civilization–is a pure lie concocted largely by Protestant Reformers, political enemies, atheists, and the sensationalist press. As someone who teaches Church history, I read the schoolbooks, just like Grant does in the novel, and I find the same lazy errors and outright lies.

If Richard III is what contemporary records show he was–a good king unseated by a wicked rival with no claim to the throne who actually murdered the princes–then how did the story get turned out around?

And if that piece of history is completely false, what else is?

“Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority,” wrote Sir Francis Bacon in a line that gives the book its title.

Or as Tey says, history is not in the accounts, but in the account books. It’s the little details, not the stories of the victors, that we must look to.

That’s Tey’s gift to you in The Daughter of Time. When you’re done, you won’t take anything at face value, nor should you, even your faith. Probe deeper, ask questions, be a detective. In other words, test everything, hold on to what is true.

UPDATE: I knew when I used the clickbait headline I’d start hearing from people who read and loved it, and it turned out to be a favorite of a large number of Catholic bloggers, including my blogmother Julie D. She has an episode of A Good Story is Hard to Find on Tey.



Browse Our Archives