There is an old proverb which tells us that "truth is the daughter of time." Perhaps so. But when it comes to historical truth, it can be very difficult to pin down the details of the historical facts we think we know. Mystery author Josephine Tey tackled one of those enduring mysteries in her book, The Daughter of Time. It is one of my favorite mysteries - even though the "truths" revealed in the book remain the subject of considerable argument. It was one of the first books reviewed on my podcast. Here's what I had to say more than nine years ago, edited somewhat:
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Do you remember Richard the Third, the fifteenth century King of England portrayed as a vicious, evil murderer by Shakespeare? The original “evil uncle,” who had his two nephews murdered in the Tower of London, so that he could usurp the throne? His story is the stuff of nightmares.
Or is it?
What if Richard didn’t commit those murders?
Who did? And why? What really happened to the princes in the tower?
Could Richard III have been framed?
Those are the questions addressed in one of the most delightful mystery novels ever written – The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey.
The Daughter of Time defies all attempts to categorize it. It is a historical novel – but it is set in the present. A detective sets out to solve a murder – that happened 450 years earlier. And the reader is treated to some truly beautiful writing.
Here’s the basic premise of the book: our detective, Alan Grant, is hospital-bound and bed-ridden – and desperately bored. Josephine Tey’s opening paragraph will undoubtedly strike a familiar note to anyone who has ever been trapped in a hospital bed. Here’s how the book begins:
Grant lay on his high white cot and stared at the ceiling. Stared at it with loathing. He knew by heart every last minute crack on its nice clean surface. He had made maps of the ceiling and gone exploring on them; rivers, islands, and continents. He had made guessing games of it and discovered hidden objects; faces, birds and fishes. He had made mathematical calculations of it and rediscovered his childhood; theorems, angles, and triangles. There was practically nothing else he could do but look at it. He hated the sight of it.
In an attempt to get his mind out of this rut, an actress friend brings him some portraits of people involved in historical mysteries. One of the portraits fascinates Grant. It is the face of an apparently sensitive, troubled man. Grant is stunned to discover that it is a portrait of Richard III – for the face does not look like the kind one might expect to belong to a vicious murderer. Yes, Grant is aware that it is impossible to say by looking at a person’s face that the person would not commit a murder. But he is intrigued by what he sees. Here is how the author describes Grant’s position:
It was, as he had said, not possible to put faces into any kind of category, but it was possible to characterize individual faces. In a reprint of a famous trial, for instance, where photographs of the principal actors in the case were displayed for the public’s interest, there was never any doubt as to which was the accused and which the judge.
Grant begins to look more closely at what history says about Richard III. And the closer he looks, the more research he does, the more wildly improbable it seems to him that Richard could ever have done the things which Shakespeare – and, before him, Sir Thomas More – claimed that Richard had done.
Grant sets out as a policeman to try to solve the puzzle. Aided by an American researcher, and by documents and books from the British Museum, he pursues the facts in the case, looking for contemporary records of witnesses, trying to answer the questions that any investigator needs to have answered in order to solve a crime.
In the course of his investigation, he comes across a great many examples of how history can be falsified – and often is. Facts we all think we know may really be fictions – and don’t we see that happening today as well.
The conclusions which Grant reaches have been reached by other historians over the years, but their findings have often been ignored. That Shakespearian image of Richard as monster and murderer is too powerful.
And it is worth noting – as another character in the book does – quoting again:
“It’s an odd thing but when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller but with you. They don’t want to have their ideas upset. It rouses some vague uneasiness in them, I think, and they resent it. So they reject it and refuse to think about it. If they were merely indifferent it would be natural and understandable. But it is much stronger than that, much more positive. They are annoyed. Very odd, isn’t it?”
It’s important to emphasize that The Daughter of Time is no dry history lesson. The sophisticated writing, the touches of humor, the fascinating characters both of the contemporary investigators and of the historical actors – these all combine beautifully in a most extraordinary book.
The Daughter of Time was published in 1951, and it was Josephine Tey’s next-to-last mystery. In fact, she only wrote a half-dozen or so in the course of her career. None fits any convenient formula and all are worth reading. But The Daughter of Time really is an amazing novel. I note with approval that the New York Times called it “one of the best mysteries of all time.” Obviously, I agree.
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To listen to the original podcast review, please click here.
Next week: The Final Deduction, by Rex Stout.