Classic Crime

Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey (1896 - 1952)

Elizabeth MacKintosh was the creator of two remarkable literary personalities: Gordon Daviot, one of the most popular playwrights of her age; and Josephine Tey, whose ingenious crime novels have been held in high regard by readers all over the world since they were first published. Today, she is still one of the best-loved authors in the genre, admired for her originality and unpredictability; for an elegant, idiosyncratic style which is a joy to read; and for her truthful characterisation and fluent, witty dialogue, sharpened by writing for the stage.

Her first crime novel, ‘The Man in the Queue’, was published in 1929 under the Daviot name, and she wrote it ‘at top speed in a fortnight, sitting up till three in the morning and falling into bed half-dead’. Although more conventional than what was to follow, the book is notable for its introduction of her series detective, Inspector Alan Grant, and for the striking challenge to the reader in its final chapter. But it was as a dramatist that Daviot first achieved celebrity status: her play, ‘Richard of Bordeaux’ (1933), was directed by and starred a young John Gielgud and ran for over a year in the West End. With its investigation of war versus culture, its brilliant design by Motley, and a heavy streak of romanticism, the play was a phenomenon, pitched perfectly at an audience still reeling from one world war and living increasingly in the shadow of another.

It is the work created as Josephine Tey, though, that has ultimately proved more popular, a fact acknowledged by the author with a certain amount of reluctance: ‘I have the oddest feeling of disloyalty to Daviot,’ she wrote to a friend in 1950. ‘Like turning down a faithful lover.’ The name first appeared in 1936 with the publication of ‘A Shilling for Candles’ (filmed by Hitchcock a year later as ‘Young and Innocent’) but it came into its own in the years immediately following the second world war: with six books which included ‘The Franchise Affair’ and ‘Brat Farrar’ as well as ‘The Daughter of Time’, Tey expanded and enriched the nature of crime fiction - not through ingenious puzzles and reassuring endings, but by creating a credible detective whose compassion, intelligence, fallibility and professionalism paved the way for Dalgliesh, Wexford and the next generation, and by concentrating - in a very modern way - on the aftermath of criminal activity. Unlike her more orthodox contemporaries, Tey does not always restore order at the end of a novel: the innocent often suffer; the guilty sometimes escape unscathed; many of her books make an uncomfortable distinction between justice and the legal system, and her sensitivity to the limitations of human justice gives an edge to her work, even in the 21st century.

But it’s her skill in creating a complete world that makes her lovable as well as important, and it sends people back to her work again and again. She can draw a life through the smallest of details and, whether it’s an artistic community (‘A Shilling for Candles’, ‘To Love and Be Wise’) or a girls’ physical training college (‘Miss Pym Disposes’), the drama of a Highland landscape (‘The Singing Sands’) or the quiet beauty of the English countryside (‘Brat Farrar’), Tey draws on what she knew and loved to convince us that her people and places are real - and, as readers, we care deeply about them.

Elizabeth MacKintosh died of cancer at the age of just 55. In typically evasive style, she managed to slip away in February, while the rest of the world was mourning George VI; hidden among a nation’s grief for its king and the pomp of a royal funeral, the notice of her death and the modest obituary which followed are easy to miss. Her death means that we will never know what she would have gone on to write, or how she might have embraced the new opportunities in radio and television drama that would have suited her talents so well. But her legacy is as important as any of her more prolific contemporaries, and it isn’t surprising that she is admired by writers as diverse as Raymond Chandler, PD James, Andrew Taylor and Ruth Rendell: more than any other Golden Age writer, Tey has made it possible for us to write books which can treat crime as an entertainment without ever forgetting its painful reality.

Quotations from Josephine Tey’s letters by kind permission of The National Trust.

Review: The Franchise Affair

The Franchise Affair (1948)

In the author’s biographical note that she supplied to Penguin for the paperback publication of ‘The Franchise Affair’, Josephine Tey wrote of herself: ‘She has only once used her own life or background in her creative work: in ‘Miss Pym Disposes’, which is the picture of a P.T. college for young women.’ Certainly, the fictional Leys - with its pressures and passions and adolescent angst - is a convincing portrayal of Tey’s own time at Anstey Physical Training College near Birmingham, and it makes a brilliant backdrop to murder. But like many things Tey said, her statement tells only half a story. Look hard enough into her novels and they are filled with small details of her life, with her passions and her loathings and her sense of what was important: the character Marta Hallard is a composite of the actresses she spent her time with, many of whom were in love with her; the racetrack scene in her first novel, Kif, has all the thrill and excitement of real-life race meetings discussed in letters to friends; Salcott St Mary (‘To Love and Be Wise’) is a thinly disguised Finchingfield, the Essex village she loved where friends including Gielgud, Dodie Smith and Gwen Ffrancon-Davies owned cottages; many of her characters take their names from fellow members of the Cowdray, Tey’s private club; and Robert Blair’s telephone number - 195 - was her own. The voice that emerges so strongly from her books is the voice of the woman herself: warm, funny, difficult, fallible, infuriatingly independent, and yet - as one tribute so beautifully put it - a grand friend to have.

Nowhere is this more true than in ‘The Franchise Affair’ (1948), the first Tey I read and still my favourite. Based on a historical case (a Tey trait, seen most famously in ‘The Daughter of Time’), it’s the story of two women who are accused of kidnapping a young girl and holding her prisoner as a servant in a house called The Franchise. Its originality is typical of her, and flouts all the rules of the Golden Age. There is no murder: Tey is one of a few crime writers who can make a book interesting without falling back on a nasty death or an intellectual puzzle. It isn’t a ‘did they or didn’t they’ style mystery: we know pretty much from the outset that the accused are innocent. Its heroines, the Sharpes - a middle-aged woman and her mother - are unusual to say the least, and they are not saved by a brilliant amateur or professional detective, but by an inadequate country solicitor whose days are distinguished by the type of biscuits on his tea tray. And in a beautifully tongue-in-cheek move, Tey’s series detective, Inspector Alan Grant, appears on the wrong side of justice. She shouldn’t get away with any of it, but she does, and we love ‘The Franchise Affair’ because it’s a compelling story about real people, told in a leisurely, elegant style and with great wit.

What makes it special for me is its layering. On the one hand, it’s a warm, nostalgic snapshot of an England we have lost - an England that Tey loved, even though she was born and lived all her life in Scotland. Pick it up and feel the sun on your face. But it’s also a dark, subversive book, way ahead of its time. Tey was one of the first crime writers to be interested in the stain of crime, in how it spreads to the victim, the victim’s family, the family of the guilty. ‘The Franchise Affair’ takes a very modern look at trial by the media, at mob violence and at the vilification of two women whose only crime is, in Marion Sharpe’s words, to have kept themselves too much to themselves. All this takes on a new poignancy when you know that Tey was no more conventional than her books: in Inverness, keeping herself to herself was exactly what she did, and she was resented and regarded, she says, as ‘queer’ because of it. The scene where the Sharpes are turned away from a café because of the scandal surrounding them is clearly the work of a woman who knew what it was like to be the subject of gossip, to be made to feel uncomfortable in her home town. In fact, some of the things written about Tey by neighbours after her death suggest that if they had been able to accuse her of kidnapping and beating a servant, they would have.

But that’s Tey’s great genius - to create a story which can be read on many levels, and which differs according to its audience (she played that trick with her life, too, and just as effectively). A remark to Gielgud that her detective novels were her ‘yearly knitting’ has led many to think that she valued them less highly than her plays; a more telling comment is one she made to her publisher, comparing her joy at seeing ‘The Franchise Affair’ in the Times Book Club window with the pride of having her name in lights over the New Theatre. She loved these books as much as we do, and rightly so.

Quotations from Josephine Tey’s letters by kind permission of The National Trust.

Josephine Tey Biography and Review written by Nicola Upson, author of the Josephine Tey series, Upson's latest being 'Fear in the Sunlight' - Author of the Month April 2012.

Reviewed by: N.U.

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