Josephine Tey, the English mystery writer, is as good as Agatha Christie. She wasn’t as prolific – AG was kind of like the Barbara Cartland of mysteries – but her command of detail and plot construction is a wonder of precision and creativity. Like the writing in Fawlty Towers. TDoT is a great novel for mystery lovers and a stupendous novel for English history buffs. I don’t know how much is fact and how much is made up for the novel, but the logic supporting Richard III’s innocence is quite seductive. I consider this novel a different species because it’s not a “whodunnit”, it’s a “howdunnit” – a clinical dissection of a crime, leading to a bold, brick-by-brick deconstruction of a legend. Shockingly good; refreshingly intellectual.
In a nutshell, the story is about how a detective who’s on injury leave gets bored and entertains himself by looking at pictures of faces. Wearing his detective hat, he does psychological profiles of the faces. He comes across a pic of Richard 3 that his friend Marta brought him from the V&A. First of all, he’s never been a big fan of the common belief that R3 murdered his two nephews who were imprisoned in the Tower. He’s a detective – he doesn’t take anything for granted. Then he starts reading about the family history. He reads Sir Thomas More’s version; then a former governess’s biography of R3s mom, then lots of conversations and ruminations about the character of R3 himself. It’s all very mental. But you have to get to about Chapter 6 or 7 for all the interesting stuff to start.
For all the amazing and tantalizing conjecture of the story, Tey gets off to a slow start with tin-eared exposition for about the first five chapters. That’s why this book sat on my shelf for six years before I got past Chapter 1. But by Chapter 6, the pieces of the plot start to come together – the detective is going to solve the mystery of R3 and the murder of the nephews. For all that the beginning chapters were painfully dry and spiritless, the middle chapters all the way to the end were full of spirited and percussive banter. It seems that the only emotion that was not frowned on as being vulgar was merciless reproach. Any kind of happiness or good spirits, such as Marta exhibited, was looked on with disdain. This book was written in 1951, so the attitudes are quite dated.
However, the conversations the detective has with the intern and his friends about what they are finding out about R3 are rather a lot of fun. There’s friendly humor and wit. If you stick with it, you will be rewarded by what the detective finds out about R3 and the people around him that we who have read Shakespeare’s R3 will be shocked to consider. We will be shocked that we agree. We will be shocked that we overlooked so much, that we jumped on the “tonypandy” wagon. There’s a word for the ages, btw.
Through dialogue and rumination, whole chapters are devoted to the dissection of the life of R3 and his family and their times. There’s a lot of “whys” and “how coulds”. You know who should read this novel? JOURNALISTS! You could make a lot of comparisons between this book and ANIMAL FARM. We believe what we’ve been “trained” to believe. Our textbooks are a load of bollix. They just perpetuate an entire spectrum of lies: flat-out lies, half-truths, omissions, statistics, bogus witnesses, bad translations, political expediency. That’s the lie that lies at the heart of this story – political expediency. I won’t give away the shocking conclusion. I don’t even know if all the details of the reign of R3 featured in this story are true, but they are so much fun to read, it would be cool if they were.