Review: The Daughter of Time (Inspector Alan Grant 05) by Josephine Tey

Book info:
Genre: historical crime story
Target audience: pretty much everybody interested in history
Form: paperback, 220 pages


Synopsis (from Goodreads): 

 In one of Tey’s bestselling mystery novels ever, Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant, immobile in his hospital bed, is intrigued by a portrait of Richard III. Could such a sensitive face actually belong to one of history’s most heinous villains—a king who killed his brother’s children to secure his crown? Grant determines to find out once and for all what kind of man Richard was and who in fact killed the princes in the tower.

 What I liked: 

Yorkist king Richard III grew up at Middleham....
Yorkist king Richard III grew up at Middleham. “Middleham Castle”. RichardIII.com . . Retrieved 2007-10-24 . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 This novel deals with Richard III and all the various permutations of the Yorkist, Lancastrian and Tudor factions in late medieval England. I wanted to read it for a really long time but I couldn’t find a decent copy. What can be said… this book could have been as boring as your average history lesson but it isn’t, mainly because it is written in a very compelling way. Ms Tey (a pseudonym of Elizabeth Mackintosh) certainly knew how to keep the attention of her readers while presenting convoluted schemes of the royal palace and a police inspector trying to kill the time while recovering in hospital because of a leg injury.

 While dying of boredom Alan Grant is presented with a portrait of England’s King Richard III (reigned 1483-1485) and comes to the conclusion that a man so genteel-looking couldn’t possibly be the ruthless murderer Shakespeare made him out to be because ‘villains don’t suffer, and that face is full of the most dreadful pain’ (judge for yourself here). Certainly Shakespeare made Richard III into a character who we love to loathe. An ugly hunchback, sneaky, rotten to the core, Shakespeare’s Richard is the seducer of widows, the betrayer of loyal friends and the killer of the young princes in the Tower of London. Was the bard right or maybe it was just convenient for him to paint Richard the blackest of black?

 Intrigued, Grant starts reading books concerning the appropriate period – from middle grade textbooks, full of pictures, simplifications and doodles drawn by bored pupils, to serious positions appropriate for university scholars. He is also helped by a young, rich history enthusiast from America, Brent Carradine, on a scholarship to study at the British Museum, who does more complicated source research. They findings are impressive and inspiring – I admit that after finishing The Daughter of Time, I spent several hours on line googling the authors and historians Tey mentions in her book, looking at different portraits of Richard III and his family. I gather it was the best thing about the book itself: it made me curious and inspired, it taught me a lot while entertaining. I love such books to no end.

 What I didn’t like: 

 It was a lovely book but hardly flawless. Though there are arguments, with which I agree wholeheartedly (and no, never believe a word of a historian, Ms Tey is here absolutely right), the main hook of her novel–that the most famous surviving portrait of Richard III shows the face of a man who could not possibly kill defenceless children of his brother–is flawed to say the least of it. Every portrait ever made has been the portrait of not one person, but at least two–of the sitter and of the artist–and the practice of reading a person’s character through their portrait is an interesting one, though it must always be seen as very dubious if not completely futile from the psychological point of view.

There have been mass murderers whose faces were kind, innocent and fresh. There have been (and will always be) innocent people, such types who wouldn’t hurt a fly, who look as if they were born in a prison and released only because the guards were afraid for their lives. No serious policeman can trust their own judgment when it comes to assessing faces. I presented one such example in my essay Beautiful Beast.

 Apart from that I think the book could have done with slightly more individualized and characteristic dialogue, but really, that’s a minor complaint.

 Final verdict:

 Despite its shortcomings it is a story I would recommend to every history nerd, especially if you like the War of Roses period and criminal riddles solved with great sense of humour. I am not surprised this book was voted number 4 out of 100 best mysteries of all time by Mystery Writers of America (www.mysterywriters.org) . If you want to read the history of Richard III presented from a less fictional perspective I recommend “Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third by Horace Walpole.

ETA: The latest news on Richard III: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/9681019/Scientists-to-reconstruct-Richard-IIIs-face.html

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