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.

The Barrel Murder by Michael Zarocostas – A Book Review

THE BARREL MURDER - a Detective Joe Petrosino case (based on true events)THE BARREL MURDER – a Detective Joe Petrosino case by Michael Zarocostas

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book involved a lot of research because it is based on real events and real New York City detectives at the turn of the century.

A swarthy man who could be Italian or Middle Eastern is found murdered, his body bent double and stuffed into a wooden barrel on a New York street. These are the days when the NYC police force is dominated by Irish immigrants and there is considerable and open prejudice in the ranks against Italians and Jews, among others. Detective Joe Petrosino has been lucky; he was smiled upon by Teddy Roosevelt, who appointed him the first Italian American detective in the Central Bureau. Teddy was intent on removing graft and stamping out Tammany Hall and Joe is an honest cop. But Teddy has moved on to Washington, and Joe Petrosino can see the Tammany ways are back. He and other cops who stood for Reform are on the outs. This is not a good time to be fighting with the Irish cops over the murder of an unknown man in a barrel. But Joe just can’t help himself. And from there, things can only get worse.

Was it a crime of passion by a mentally disturbed doctor or was it really a message from a gang of drug dealers and counterfeiters who moved over from Sicily? And are they working on their own or with others? And might those others be people Joe knows and works for? Adding to his problems are a couple of muckraking journalists and an uncertainty about whether his big Jewish partner, Inspector Max Schmittberger, is really reformed from taking graft.

Michael Zarocostas does a good job of telling the facts and giving the reader just enough flavor of the times to stay engaged without getting bogged down. He is also faithful to the thinking of the times in that he does not pull any punches when it comes to the kind of talk people in Joe’s position may have both heard and engaged in, including racial slurs that are made more shocking by the offhand way in which they are uttered. Zarocostas’s prose itself is a little on the terse side. The connections between sentences and paragraphs is not always a smooth one, which makes the read a little bumpy.

The book is sprinkled with pictures of many of the main participants as well as photos of newspaper articles printed about them and the case as it unfolded which add to the sense of witnessing the events.

The only true disappointment in this book lies in the ending. It’s obviously the first book in a series, but it should have been able to stand alone. By the last chapter, Schmittberger has taken a leave and Joe has promised to talk to his lady friend’s father about marriage. But these relationships are not addressed. Further, Joe’s decision to take a risky action related to his career is only asserted, not depicted. We don’t know whether it succeeded, partially succeeded, or failed. No doubt readers will discover the answer in the second book, but it would have been nice to have some things made a little clearer.

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