It was early in lockdown that I finally decided to get to grips with audiobooks. My husband hoovers them up and gets through far more books than I do. I’m too fussy. The voice of the narrator has to match the one I have in my head. They mustn’t stumble over complicated grammar, or be too flat. The story itself must grip me more than a paper-based book needs to do. After all, I can’t skim-read through the dull bits. I had tried and failed to enjoy a slew of audiobooks, and then finally, just when I needed it most, I discovered The Daughter of Time.
I’d always been dimly aware of it as a crime novel. I love the title, and I’m a fan of Josephine Tey, though I know Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers’s works better. Ruth Ware recommended Tey’s Bratt Farrar to me last year, and that quickly rose high in my list of favourite crime reads for its wonderful descriptions of horses and its clever murder plot hidden behind a more obvious one of deception, in which our hero is the deceiver.
I didn’t know what The Daughter of Time was about, and was surprised that its subject turned out to be the wicked, murderous Richard III. Of all the historical murders to pick, hadn’t the murky tale of the princes in the tower rather been done? I’d last seen Mark Rylance play Richard in the West End – by accident. I’d actually wanted to see him and Stephen Fry cross-dressing in Twelfth Night, which was on in repertory with Richard III, but accidentally booked tickets for the wrong one. It was very good, but I know the story too well. He’s a baddie, I get it.
I wasn’t surprised when Inspector Alan Grant in the book begins his investigation into Richard with a certain reluctance. He is stuck in a hospital bed with little to entertain himself and a mild interest in a picture of the wicked king – which seems to be that of a kind, intelligent man who has suffered much himself. It seems to be the best the policeman can do to take his mind off his problems. The story gradually draws the reader in, just as Richard’s history slowly exerts its increasing fascination on Grant.
Tey’s masterful storytelling is apparent in the texture of historical record that she gradually weaves into the novel. With little access to literature, Grant is first forced to remind himself of the story of the poisoning of the princes in the tower using simplistic children’s history books. Everyone he encounters from nurses to visitors, has a strong, instinctive dislike of the man. We all know the story, and these histories confirm it. Richard did away with the vulnerable young men in the tower to strengthen his claim to the throne. He used his brief time in power to sew chaos and dissent until the brave Henry Tudor arrived to save the day, ushering in the modern age with his new dynasty, sweeping away all that was old and rotten with the Plantagenets.
But gradually, alongside Alan Grant, we learn, fact by fact, that everything we know is wrong. Tey beautifully illustrates, time and time again, how history is written by the victors. How these victors are often the venal acoyltes of cruel men, eager to whitewash their part in a lawless rise to power. Slowly, slowly, the reader, like Grant, is encouraged to wonder who really benefitted from the young princes’ deaths. It wasn’t Richard. Nor were they known to have died while he was alive. And during that time, by the way, he achieved a lot of good.
Gradually, with slow-burning precision, a new villain emerges. Grant gains access to better historical sources. He pieces together a revisionist history that exonerates the dastardly Plantagenets, casts them as the tragic victims of history, and sheds and entirely new light on the Tudors. Ta dah! It’s a wonderful retelling of the story. A true murder plot with a twist.
And then the second twist comes. The exculpation of Richard is nothing new: historians did it ages ago. But the propaganda of centuries, reinforced of course by Shakespeare, refuses to submit to our new knowledge. Truth may be the daughter of time, but she has great difficulty asserting herself.
I love the way that crime novels can take the rigour enforced by their genre and use them to play with rules, bend and break them, and at the same time explore a huge variety of themes concerning our life today while keeping the reader entertained. What do we need now if not the ability to question the narrative we are being fed by the current victors of history? In The Windsor Knot, one of my chief delights is the ability to cast a fresh light on politics and feminism, raising questions about our preconceptions as my sleuth – the Queen – advances towards the solution to the mystery.
My next read was the truly enormous third book in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy: The Mirror and the Light (indirectly referencing Mark Rylance again). Paper this time, and so heavy I worried about straining a muscle as I held it up in bed each night. Not my favourite of the three, as I felt the thrust of the story was overwhelmed by the detail of the research this time. But also, I kept wanting to shout at those Tudors and their courtiers. They had such a sense of entitlement! Such magnanimity towards the remaining Plantagenets and the dangerous ‘pretender’. All unmerited! My reading of Tey’s book had given me a new perpective. The novel had crept under my skin the way the best books do. I was a convert, just like Alan Grant. ‘More people should read this book’! I thought. Its implications affect our understanding of the monarchy to this day. It deserves a much wider audience.
And then I was kindly asked by Adèle Geras to write this post recommending a favourite book. I thought I would give you all the gift of this wonderful, under-appreciated crime novel. I looked it up on Wikipedia to remind myself of one of the details and discovered this:
“In 1990 it was voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list compiled by the British Crime Writers' Association. In 1995 it was voted number four in The Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time list compiled by the Mystery Writers of America.”
My great discovery had already been discovered. You probably know better than I do how brilliant it is. I was, in fact, late to the party by several decades. Perhaps I should have known, but somehow it had passed me by.
I’m glad I wasn’t aware of its reception during lockdown, though. The discovery was mine, like Grant’s of Richard’s story. I had no expectations, and so could be won over completely by its gentle charm. I’m sad that I don’t get the chance to raise its profile. I’m not sure where you go from number one in the top 100 crime novels of all time. If you haven’t read it, though, perhaps the CWA, the MWA and I can jointly persuade you to give it a try.