If you avoid plague novels like their subject and, for now at least, Middlemarch is more than you can chew, I’d recommend The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey.
The hero, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, is trapped. Not because he’s being held hostage, or because he’s been wrongly imprisoned, but because he’s laid up in the hospital with a broken leg, having fallen through a trap door while chasing a perp.
At no point does an intruder try to smother him with a pillow, or a nurse attempt to poison his pudding. He doesn’t even get addicted to morphine. Are you bored yet? Because Grant is—locked down for weeks with nothing to do. Perhaps you can relate.
Grant tries reading a few of the novels left by well-meaning friends, but quickly puts them down: “You knew what to expect on the next page… Authors today wrote so much to a pattern that they knew their public expected it.” The opinion is voiced by Grant, but it’s clear the author is announcing, in one of the book’s many playfully self-aware passages, that this will not be a conventional detective story.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
The double murder in question was committed more than 400 years earlier, so the clues are turned up in the archives of the British Museum. The culprit, as every English schoolboy or girl knew, was Richard III—“Crouchback. The monster of nursery stories”—and the victims were his two young nephews, locked away in the Tower of London never to be seen again.
Grant takes an interest in the crime after his actress friend Marta brings a series of portraits from the Victoria & Albert print shop to indulge his occupational “passion for faces,” and he pauses on one of Richard. Experience—or instinct—tells Grant that this is not a cold-blooded killer. He decides to reopen the case from his hospital bed, enlisting Brent Carradine, an American grad student, as his deputy. Think The Da Vinci Code in reverse: a man of action forced into scholarship.
Grant and Carradine come to believe that Richard III is innocent. This is revisionist history at its most radical. To put it in American terms, it’s like claiming that John Wilkes Booth was framed, or that Benedict Arnold was a double agent. Maybe even more so, since sticking up for Richard means slandering Shakespeare.
“You knew what to expect on the next page… Authors today wrote so much to a pattern that they knew their public expected it.”
For Grant, nothing is taken on authority—whether the source is a textbook or the “sainted” Thomas More. My kingdom for a horse? Hearsay. Part of Tey’s argument is that sometimes it takes an outsider—one who is “interested in what makes people tick,” like a detective or, say, a novelist—to see things afresh. History can’t just be left to historians. Antony Beevor conceded as much when asked about Norman Ohler’s 2016 book Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany: “When an outsider comes in with an open mind and different interests, the results can be fantastic and very illuminating.”
It turns out they’re not the first to connect these dots, as Carradine is disappointed to learn: “‘It won’t be a great discovery!’ He said it in capitals. A Great Discovery.” Apparently, doubts about the official story date back to the seventeenth century, and five hundred years after the event, what happened to “the Princes in the Tower” is still in dispute. But Tey’s book is credited with growing the number of “Ricardians.” In 2015, the Richard III Society sponsored the excavation, led by Philipa Langley, another outsider, of a parking lot in Leicester, where they found the king’s remains. (An autopsy revealed that he suffered from scoliosis.)
Carradine tells Grant he wants to write a book setting the record straight, and he wants “to write it the way it happened. You know; about my coming to see you, and our starting the Richard thing quite casually and not knowing what we were getting into.” A book that sounds a lot like The Daughter of Time, in other words. It is Grant’s “considered opinion that far too many books are written as it is.” But he says he’ll make an exception.
Ash Carter is Features Editor at Air Mail