The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Until very recently, I had not heard of Josephine Tey (1896-1952). She was an extremely popular English mystery writer whose early death from cancer prevented her from creating the kind of canon writers like Margery Allingham and Agatha Christie did.

This book features her detective inspector Allan Grant, who is laid up in hospital with a severely fractured leg as a result of a fall while in pursuit of a criminal. He’s a very rational man, who prefers fact to fiction and is finding forced confinement, with the kinds of books people are sending him, to be difficult indeed. But, factual though he is, he has the quirk of being drawn to faces. Early in his career he discovered that he could use what he saw in one to help him determine who was lying, who was guilty. But in a hospital bed, in the years before television everywhere and decades before the internet, the only faces he sees on a regular basis are the cute but bullying tiny nurse he calls The Midget and the tall and comforting nurse he calls The Amazon.

Then actress friend Marta brings him a sheaf of prints of portraits and he suddenly finds himself obsessed with the portrait of a man who – at first glance – everyone he shows it to takes for a judge or some other upright person. But when they learn who he is, their judgement always turns harsh and he’s perceived as a monster: Richard III, last of the Plantagenet kings of England.

Grant, with the help of his actress friend’s “woolly lamb” Brent Carradine, an American doing research in London to be near his actress girlfriend, begins trying to untangle the mystery surrounding Richard III – and to determine if he really was responsible for the deaths of his two young nephews, the “princes in the Tower.”

Several mystery writers have assayed the detective-solves-old mystery-while-in-hospital plot, but seldom as well as Tey. Her writing is straightforward but filtered through the droll mind of Inspector Grant, it is charming. In Robert Barnard’s introduction to the recent edition by Scribner’s he says she always had “control of her reader’s sympathies,” and I can attest to that.

By the time he’s ready to go home, Grant has solved the mystery to his satisfaction and discovered that though Richard III is still in the history books as a villain, historical scholars had already amassed more than enough factual evidence to show he was not the hunchback with a withered arm desperate for power that he had been portrayed as for nearly 5 centuries after his death. It was his public reputation that needed rehabilitation.

After I finished this novel, I looked up the news articles on the finding of Richard III’s remains in the Leicester parking lot and his subsequent reburial at the cathedral. Even at this point, the observers were reluctant to bring up his still controversial reign, instead focusing on the surprise of finding such a monumental English historical personage in the way Richard had been found and on the acknowledgement of his status as an anointed king of England.

This brought me back to Tey’s novel where at one point Grant and his friend Marta have a conversation about why it is that people confronted by facts tend to dig in their heels and get angry when those facts contradict their long-held beliefs. And this too was one of Tey’s strong points as a writer: she could weave an observation about our cultural foibles into her story that transcended the story itself, but without being either offensive or obtrusive.

I will certainly read more of her work.

Review: Bitter Root – Graphic Novel

Bitter Root Vol 1, Cover

Cover by Sanford Greene

Bitter Root,
Vol. 1: Family Business 
(Bitter Root #1-5) 
by David F. WalkerChuck BrownSanford Greene (Contributor)

In terms of theme, the book is pretty simple: racism and hate make people into monsters.

The strength of this graphic novel lies in the relationships of the family members. Even though we are all acquainted with the drama and angst that familial issues cause, it doesn’t alter the fact that we are drawn to them, even for the same reason.

In this novel, the Sangeryes family has had its share of tragedy, even for a family whose business is to capture and purify (not kill) people who have been made into monsters by their hatred. Decreased in numbers, they are in the middle of dealing with an explosion of new cases when they’re confronted by a couple of new problems – portals from another dimension letting in more powerful true demonoid monsters and a transformed doctor (Sylvester) who, because of his own pain and loss, is trying to eliminate pain by eliminating the ones who cause it.

Set in Harlem a few years before the Renaissance flourished, the book jumps into action right away without time spent on the cultural and intellectual growth of that time and how it might be impacted by the racial hate that caused the killings of the Red Summer of 1919 in Harlem and the massacre that was the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. But those events are mentioned: the Sangeryes lost family during the Red Summer and the doctor-turned-monster lost his family to white vigilantes in Tulsa.

There’s much push and pull related to the characters trying to find their balance in such an environment. The Sangeryes continue to help others regardless of race, even as they argue about it amongst themselves. Doctor Sylvester starts out as somewhat admiring of the Sangeryes, but then becomes dismissive as his own hate grows to eclipse his desire to cure the new infection from the demons coming through from another dimension and causes him to decide to use it, instead.

There is despair as white policemen who know the true story, avoid speaking up out of fear, but there is also hope in a young white member of a KKK group becoming a follower of one of the Sangeryes.

The artwork is so good and the pacing is very quick, moving from one member of the family to another until the point where all of them converge in the streets of Harlem to find both a daunting challenge in Doctor Sylvester and the new – intelligent – demons, and renewed strength through family reunion.

I don’t know that I will continue with the series – I found the story to be less challenging than I like – but I enjoyed this book and consider the time on it spent well, if only for the reminders of our bloody history of racial hate and the ways people have of surmounting it and still flourishing.