Monday, November 14, 2011

Josephine Tey – Inspector Alan Grant Mysteries

Josephine Tey and Gordon Daviot are both pseudonyms of Elizabeth MacKintosh. She has written 8 mystery novels between the years 1929 to 1952, five of which feature Alan Grant. A quick search on Gutenberg is sure to throw up a fair collection of novels. The first of the Alan Grant mysteries is ‘The Man in the Queue”, which did not really capture my attention. But it created just enough interest for me to pick up the second book, ‘A Shilling for Candles’ and then, I just had to find out what Grant does in the next book!

I suppose I need to mention that Tey’s books are accused of political incorrectness. There are claims that the author’s prejudices are passed on to her characters. To me, so many years removed in time, all that matters is a good mystery and on that count, Tey certainly scores high on my list.

Her detective, Alan Grant, does not astonish à la Sherlock Holmes; he does not have the flamboyance of a Poirot or the elegance of a Peter Wimsey. What he does have is ordinariness and a dogged determination to find the truth. He is an Everyman detective, albeit a clever Everyman.  

Grant is well educated, as seen from his quotes from the classics, he is conscientious and will worry over a case even after he has reached a conclusion that is acceptable to all and perfectly logical. In The Man in the Queue, for example, after arresting the man who he has believed to be the murderer and listening to his story, Grant starts to wonder if he has indeed caught the right suspect. Evidence is never infallible and often Grant persists even when no one else can see the point.

Because he is essentially a kind and fair man, Grant finds devoted hero worship from his nephew and his sergeant, Williams. And that explains Grant’s appeal – he is no awe inspiring superhero – just a nice man trying to do his job and use his powerful position to fight for the cause of justice, succeeding against difficult odds.

In the novel, 'The Daughter of Time', which is Tey’s most famous Alan Grant mystery, Grant finds himself in hospital with a broken leg. He is bored to death and has no patience with the magazines and other trivial pursuits that are commonly provided to hospital patients.

Grant has a strong belief that the face is a true mark of the man. And considers himself an expert in the art of understanding the character through studying the face. As he says,

It was a strange thing how much the meaning of a countenance depended on eyebrows. One change of degree in the angle this way or that and the whole effect was different.”

Knowing his interest, Grant’s friend, Marta Hallard, an actress, brings him some portraits to study. Grant does not recognize these people but the face that attracts his attention is that of Richard III.

Now if you know English history, then you also know that Richard III was king for only two years. He is remembered for the ignoble way he came to the throne. Richard III was supposed to the guardian of his brother’s son, Edward V, who was to be crowned king after his father’s death. Instead Richard III managed to have both of Edward 1V’s sons declared illegitimate and crowned himself as ruler. And the Princes? Why, no one saw them again, leading to speculation that Richard III had murdered them.

But when Grant looks at the portrait of Richard III, he sees not an evil murderer but a man of power, one used to both responsibility and suffering. So why is Grant’s analysis of Richard so different from what history has to say?

With the help of the ever faithful Sergeant Williams and reputed scholars, Grant investigates the true story of Richard III, so many years later, and concludes that this image of a murderer was created mainly as Tudor propaganda (with the help of dramatists like Shakespeare who portrayed the king as a power hungry despot, hunch backed and monstrous in appearance). Grant makes a persuasive case for Richard III as a brave, courageous warrior king by the end of the book.

An enjoyable book just like the rest of Tey’s mysteries.  Interesting and ingenious plots that test Grant and the reader, loving attention to detail and varied settings all written in a pleasant prose make Tey’s novels necessary reading for those of us who like mysteries.

And when you are done reading Alan Grant’s cases, do look for Tey’s other books including ‘Miss Pym Disposes’  and ‘The Franchise Affair’ – both first class mysteries!

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