Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Josephine Tey: A Life in Crime

Elizabeth Mackintosh, "Josephine Tey" (born 25 July 1896)


Born Elizabeth MacKintosh, the writer who is best known for her detective novels chose the pseudonym Josephine Tey by combining her mother's first name (before her marriage, she was Josephine Horne) with the surname of an English grandmother (or great grandmother--accounts vary). 

Tey published a series five mystery novels featuring a Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Alan Grant. She also published three stand-alone mysteries, one of which (The Franchise Affair), interestingly, contains a number of references to Alan Grant.

In addition to her mysteries, she also wrote a series of successful plays under another pen name, Gordon Daviot. (Her first Alan Grant novel was also published under this pseudonym but was later republished under the name "Josephine Tey.") Like "Josephine Tey," the name "Daviot" had personal connections, the name of a district, outside Inverness, where the Scottish MacKintosh family spent their holiday time. Gordon Daviot was also the name Elizabeth MacKintosh preferred to use in her personal life, among family and friends. Indeed, her death notice, published in The Times, reads, "DAVIOT--On Feb. 13, 1952, in London, GORDON DAVIOT, Playwright and Novelist. Cremation at the South London Crematorium, Rowan Road, Streatham Vale, S.W. 16, on Monday, Feb. 18, at 11 a.m. No flowers."

The first of Tey's mysteries, The Man in the Queue, was published in 1929, the last, The Singing Sands, again featuring Alan Grant, published posthumously in 1952. Her dates, then, place her squarely inside the "Golden Age of Detective Fiction." Four of her contemporaries, Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers, are sometimes described as the "Queens of Crime"--for my money, although she may be less well known to American readers, Tey equally deserves this royal treatment.

Tey ventured into historical territory in her novels and plays, which may make some of you particularly interested in her work. Her play Richard of Bordeaux is about Richard II, another, Dickon, about Richard III, and Queen of Scots, about, well, obviously, Mary, queen of Scots.

John Gielguld as Richard II
in the 1933 Richard of Bordeaux,
which ran for fourteen months,
472 performances
Her most "famous" work, though, is The Daughter of Time--in which Alan Grant, laid up in the hospital, "proves" that Richard III is not guilty of the death of the princes in the Tower. It's a tour de force, and if you only have time to sample one Tey novel (and you happen to love historical fiction!), this is the one to try!

There is an excellent biographical essay about the elusive Elizabeth Mackintosh/Gordon Daviot/Josephine Tey here. And since I am a huge fan of mystery-writer Val McDermid, I'm linking here to her recent piece on Josephine Tey, whom she describes as "pathologically private," in The Telegraph. McDarmid is especially good on the issues of gender and sexual ambiguity, identity, masks, and disguises which are found throughout Tey's work. McDarmid begins:
From time to time, audiences ask crime writers who we would choose if we could have a single new novel from a dead crime writer. The name that comes up most frequently is not Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle or Raymond Chandler. It’s not even one of the more recently deceased such as Reginald Hill or Elmore Leonard. No, the writers’ choice is a reclusive Scottish spinster who wrote only a handful of crime novels: Josephine Tey.
Partly that’s because of the range and quality of her work. Reading Tey for the first time is a surprise and a delight; re-reading her provokes the same response.
McDermid also links Tey to Ruth Rendell--so there you go, triple play! (I am so not a baseball fan, but . . . )

First edition of The Daughter of Time,
1951