CHENNAI: What do you do when you find that a book you have not heard about at all is in the top (or nearabouts) in all of the lists of greatest detective/mystery books of all-time? You read it, of course. So I read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time.
The protagonist, Alan Grant, inspector of the Scotland Yard, has had a broken leg while trying to apprehend a criminal. While recuperating in a hospital, he is bored with the same old people, the same old food, and the same old books. Fiction does not interest him, and the nurses are well-meaning but staid conversation companions.
Seeing his plight, his actress friend, Marta Hallard suggests he look at some portraits — Grant takes pride in being able to identify criminals by looking at their faces. This interest in faces, supposedly, allows him ‘both a private entertainment and a professional advantage’. Marta gets him a few portraits to look at, and one particular face interests him the most. It was a most ‘individual’ of faces, one of a person used to great responsibility and authority, yet that of a worrier, perhaps even a perfectionist.
The face was of Richard III, the (in)famous last Plantagenet king of England, from the House of York, before he was overthrown by Henry VIII, the first of the Tudors. And as readers of Shakespeare would know, he was the villain that killed his nephews, the sons of Edward V, the previous king of England, to negate their royal claims.
Inspector Grant, though, is not convinced — that noble, responsible face cannot be that of a murderer. So he immerses himself in the historical mystery of the ‘Princes in the Tower’. Grant is not a historian by any stretch of the imagination — but he educated himself, progressing from school books to quasi-historical tales, to proper historic tomes — and in the meantime, becomes friendly with a researcher, who does some of the heavy lifting in terms of fact-checking. So did Richard III kill his nephews? And if he didn’t, who did?
This is one of the best books of pure detection that I have ever read, and I have read a fair few. See, this is a historical mystery that takes place entirely out of a hospital room.
There is zero action, and the tone is very unlike a detective novel in being humorous and light. Yet, the prose is sparkling, the writing even, gripping, and Tey performs the miracle of making us believe that we can extract truth from the bosom of time through a library card, an analytical mind and common sense.
After its publication in 1951, there has been new interest in the ‘Princes in the Tower’, and apparently there are many historians who are now convinced of Richard III’s innocence of the crime. The book is nothing like anything I have read earlier. I loved it — it’s completely worthy of all the adulation. And thank God for those best-of lists.
(The writer is Financial Architect in angalore, whose short stories have been published in magazines in India and Singapore)