It is really a pity that Josephine Tey wrote only eight mysteries in her all-too-brief career. Writing mostly at the tail end of the Golden Age, her books generally defy easy description. After all, she was the author of The Daughter of Time, best described perhaps as an historical novel set in modern times, while she was also the author of seven other books, most quite different from each other. Each, in my estimation, is carefully plotted and well-written, with believable characters, and all deserve your attention. One of my favorites, first reviewed on the Classic Mysteries podcast some nine years ago, is To Love and Be Wise - quite different from The Daughter of Time, and breathtaking in the games it plays with the reader's perceptions. Here's a somewhat edited version of that review:
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A young American photographer turns up at a cocktail party and asks to be introduced to one of the guests. He is soon invited for a weekend in the country – a weekend that quickly stretches into a much longer visit. The photographer becomes involved in the lives of several people. And then, quite suddenly and completely, he disappears. How and why? Could he have been murdered? Or did he simply walk away into the night, for some unknown reason? This is the mystery at the heart of To Love and Be Wise, by Josephine Tey.
“It is impossible to love and be wise.” That phrase, generally attributed to the British philosopher and essayist Francis Bacon, is the source of the title for Josephine Tey’s delightful and witty book – for reasons that will become clear only after you have read it.
Tey is widely regarded as one of the finest authors of Britain’s Golden Age of detective fiction. To Love and Be Wise was one of her later works, published in 1950, and I think it is a fine display of her virtuosity. The story is ingenious, the plot deceptively simple, the characters drawn expertly and economically.
I suppose that if you insist on classifying it, you would consider it a fine example of a “cozy” mystery – absolutely no on-stage bloodshed is allowed. But this is no simple genre book. That "simple" plot turns out to be an amazingly complex story about relationships that go wrong – and the consequences of them.
The story begins at a literary cocktail party. Tey’s detective character, Detective Inspector Alan Grant, visits the party to pick up a friend and take her to dinner. At the party, he quite literally bumps into a young man, looking somewhat lost, who asks Grant to introduce him to the guest of honor, Lavinia Fitch, who is celebrating the publication of her new book. The young man introduces himself as Leslie Searle, an American. He wishes to meet Lavinia’s nephew, Walter Whitmore. Searle is quickly invited by Lavinia for a weekend in the country, at her house, called “Trimmings” in a very English village named Salcott Saint Mary.
Grant, having overseen this bit of polite maneuvering, escorts his friend, actress Marta Hallard, out of the party. They talk, briefly, about the young American they have just seen. And the chapter ends, with Grant saying this:
“I don’t think safe is the adjective I would apply to Searle, somehow,” he said reflectively; and from that moment forgot all about Leslie Searle until the day when he was sent down to Salcott St. Mary to search for the young man’s body.
If you think that line was a bit unexpected – you’re right. Tey had a genius for writing witty and sophisticated passages which, while often delighting the reader, would also be likely to deliver the occasional unexpected knockout punch. Certainly, that is not the kind of line we might have expected from what – up to that point – could have been the setup for a sophisticated comedy of manners.
As the book progresses, we are treated to glimpses of the relationships among the key characters – Searle, of course, Lavinia, her nephew Walter and Walter’s fiancée, Liz, Liz’s mother (who is fearful that Searle could upset the impending marriage between her daughter and Walter), and so on. We meet some of the residents of Salcott St. Mary – some long-time natives and a number of artistic newcomers, all of whom become further involved with Searle.
Then, one evening, in the local pub, Searle and Walter are observed having a fairly quiet but intense conversation. Walter leaves, quite suddenly. Searle tells one of the locals, Bill Maddox, that he, Searle, has been irritating Whitmore. The story continues:
Maddox clicked his tongue and went away to get the beer.
After that, conversation became general. Searle stayed until closing time, said goodnight to Reeve, the landlord, as he locked the door behind them, and walked down the village street with the others. At the narrow lane that led between the houses to the fields he turned off, pelted by their mock-condolences on his lack of a snug bed, and throwing back in his turn accusations of frowst and ageing arteries.
“Goodnight!” he called from far down the lane.
And that was the last that anyone in Salcott St. Mary ever saw of Leslie Searle.
Forty-eight hours later, Alan Grant stepped back onto the affairs of the Trimmings household.
Now that’s what I mean when I talk about her ability to surprise the reader without warning. And Grant discovers he’s walked into a fairly unusual situation. Searle has disappeared – but there is no body. There is simply no trace of the young man. He is widely believed to have fallen into the local river and drowned, but there is no physical evidence. Could someone have hit him over the head and pushed him into the river, and the body lost in the river’s deep mud? Possibly – but again there is no sign of any violence. Could Searle have simply walked away? Again, it’s possible –but why, and where, and why does it appear nobody saw him if he did so?
It takes Grant a while to sort out the truth of the matter – and it is, I think, one of the most ingenious and fascinating crime stories I have read anywhere. I am reluctant to say much more about it, because I really hope that you will be moved to find the book and read it, and I fear spoiling any of the pleasurable discoveries that await you. I will say this: Tey is generally quite fair about her clues, although there are some instances, particularly late in the book, where Grant asks for a piece of information and fails to share it with the reader. However, by the time he does so, the reader might be able to make a pretty shrewd guess about the nature of the information Grant is looking for – and the answer he receives. In fact, on a number of occasions, Tey very specifically points out to the reader that a key piece of information has just been given to them – yet, I suspect, the solution is so well contrived and carefully hidden that the reader will be quite mystified until the startling ending to the book.
To Love and Be Wise, by Josephine Tey, is still in print – as are most of her mysteries – and I strongly urge you to visit your favorite bookseller to get a copy. In an introduction to the edition of the book sitting on my shelves, another fine English mystery writer, Robert Barnard, says, “Mystery readers who have never encountered Josephine Tey are in for a delicious treat.” I agree whole-heartedly. To Love and Be Wise is a book to savor.
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You can listen to the original audio review by clicking here.
Next week: The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, by Anthony Boucher