The Fifth Queen

Early in E.C.R. Lorac’s Shroud of Darkness, one character is said to be reading a novel by Josephine Tey (the translator doesn’t care to say which one, probably because it was hosted by another publisher) It is a noticeable happening as references to Tey and his work are pretty rare in contemporary crime fiction, in keeping with her « outsider » status back then. As incredible as it may seem now, Tey was not a major player in her lifetime. Her books sold well, she got strong reviews – especially in the United States where she found an enthusiastic champion in the person of Anthony Boucher – and some of her work even found its way to the screen, but she never was a « member of the tribe » as evidenced by the (now) much-commented fact that she was never invited to join the Detection Club. Of course her reclusive nature – she is one of the few modern crime writers about whom little to nothing is known for certain – and her short life didn’t help her breaking into the mainstream, but the fact remains that the British mystery establishment didn’t regard her as one of them, nor did they consider her a particularly important writer.

They had « good » reason to do so: After all, Tey wasn’t writing proper detective fiction according to the strict definition still more or less prevailing in the years after WW2. Only two or three of her eight completed novels qualify as mysteries in the traditional sense of the word and even those are marked by priorities at odds with those of contemporary crime fiction. Tey keeps plots deliberately simple – some might say simplistic – and easily guessable, focusing instead on characters and settings. Her two most famous works, The Franchise Affair and The Daughter of Time, dispense with any whodunit element and pretence to outsmart the reader, and offer deliberately anticlimactic resolutions. Writers like Raymond Chandler or Georges Simenon have often been criticized (or praised, depending on one’s point of view) for their apparent indifference to plotting but none of them went as far as Tey in discarding the genre’s basic requirements in this department entirely. Agatha Christie she most definitely wasn’t.

How then could a writer so radically at odds with the conventions of the genre, with so small an output and so limited an influence in her lifetime, become after her death one of the most famous, influential and important figures in the history of crime fiction? The Daughter of Time is frequently found near or at the top of lists of best mysteries ever written, and Tey is the leading candidate for the hypothetical Fifth seat in the « Crime Queens » pantheon, some even arguing that she is actually better than the holders of the title. The contributors to the infamous Books to Die For compendium, otherwise no friends of traditional mysteries, gave her more space than to Agatha Christie, and I have lost the count of all writers who claim her as an influence, especially when their own work has nothing to do with hers. Marginal in her own time, ubiquitous afterwards: Josephine Tey is very much the cozy mystery’s answer to Jim Thompson.

That wouldn’t have been possible had tastes and the trajectory of the genre not changed dramatically during and after WW2. It’s telling that Tey, while often portrayed as a GAD writer, only published two books during the canonical period; also telling is that her merits remain to this day hotly debated among fans of the traditional detective novel, many of them dismissing her on the grounds of poor plotting. Finally, it’s little wonder that strongest support came from America, then in the middle of its « Revolution », and its most « progressive » critics. Tey’s unorthodoxy appealed to people who had had enough with orthodoxy and wanted to open new ways to the genre, and her literary flair pleased those who wanted to turn the mystery into a « real novel » that would put character first. One might say that Josephine Tey wrote detective novels that were to the genre as High Noon was to westerns, that is, ideally suited to people who didn’t usually like those. Her popularity with modern crime writers is thus perfectly understandable as she (willingly?) paved the way for them. Like it or not and for better or worse, Elizabeth MacKintosh invented crime fiction as we know it now – and she didn’t even live long enough to know it.

10 commentaires sur “The Fifth Queen

  1. I sadly haven’t read enough Tey yet to offer any meaningful response other than to say I really appreciated reading this. I hadn’t realized that her reputation was largely developed posthumously. Thanks for writing this!

    Aimé par 1 personne

    1. The translator kept only the Tey book, omitting the Allingham and the Postgate ones – presumably because they were published elsewhere. Such « incidents » are the reason why I now favour reading vintage mysteries in the original language whenever it’s possible, unless the translation is recent – but sometimes alas you have no other choice than going on with what you’ve got. Where did you find your copy?

      J'aime

  2. For a writer to decide to abandon plotting in favour of Literary Qualities sounds all very well, but it actually means you’re trying to write literary fiction. If you can’t write better literary fiction than the established literary fiction writers then you end up writing books that are failures as both detective fiction and literary fiction.

    Sadly that’s the case with Tey. I don’t think she was quite good enough to compete in either arena.

    It’s significant that a major part of the push to have Tey recognised as an Overlooked Genius has come from feminist writers and critics. Had she been a man, had she been Joseph Tey, she would still be languishing in obscurity.

    J'aime

    1. I do not think in such stark either/or terms as you do. I believe that one can be dominated by many other writers on the plotting dimension and by many other writers on character development and quality of prose, yet make very nice contributions within the mystery genre broadly conceived. Michael Gilbert and Peter Dickinson and George’s Simenon are other writers who come to mind for being somewhat « hybrids » who are dominated on any single dimension, yet produced genre work with a unique appeal and quality.

      Interesting point about the current push to canonize Tey being driven in significant part by feminists. There’s is probably more than a modicum of truth to it.

      J'aime

    2. Yes. Take Miss Pam Disposes. A reasonably pleasant novel about life in a school, but not memorable. If it didn’t have a great mystery plot and a surprising twist it wouldn’t really be worth reading. Alas … it doesn’t have a great mystery plot and a surprising twist: the ending is dead obvious, and the mystery a nothing. The apparatus of the mystery is just padding really.

      Aimé par 1 personne

      1. The apparatus of the mystery is just padding really.

        Which is probably the reason why so many modern crime writers love her so much, alas. The number of writers (and readers) who don’t give a fig about plotting and like a mystery best when it doesn’t look like a mystery at all is amazingly high.

        J'aime

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