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Thursday, June 19, 2014

BPL Book Discussion: The Daughter of Time

On Monday we gathered to discuss Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time.  From the publisher:
Voted greatest mystery novel of all time by the Crime Writers’ Association in 1990, Josephine Tey recreates one of history’s most famous—and vicious—crimes in her classic bestselling novel, a must read for connoisseurs of fiction, now with a new introduction by Robert Barnard. 
Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, recuperating from a broken leg, becomes fascinated with a contemporary portrait of Richard III that bears no resemblance to the Wicked Uncle of history. Could such a sensitive, noble face actually belong to one of the world’s most heinous villains—a venomous hunchback who may have killed his brother’s children to make his crown secure? Or could Richard have been the victim, turned into a monster by the usurpers of England’s throne? Grant determines to find out once and for all, with the help of the British Museum and an American scholar, what kind of man Richard Plantagenet really was and who killed the Little Princes in the Tower.  
The Daughter of Time is an ingeniously plotted, beautifully written, and suspenseful tale, a supreme achievement from one of mystery writing’s most gifted masters.
Originally published in 1951, and set during its present, this is a unique type of mystery. The detective is flat on his back in the hospital in mid-20th Century England and with the help of an American researcher, Brent Carradine, Grant tries to solve a centuries’ old murder mystery by using a mixture of detective work and historical documents.

Before we begin, I need to make it clear that this is a book that is beloved to many readers, especially Brits and those who have an interest in the War of the Roses or the Tudors.  If you are unfamiliar with this novel’s place in the pantheon of crime fiction, I highly suggest you read this excellent essay by J. Kingston Pierce on his highly respected Crime Blog, The Rap Sheet.  It is part of his “The Book You Have to Read” series and he gives a very well balance analysis of the book and its place in the cannon.

Read it and then come back to our discussion here because I referenced this essay and a piece by author Jo Walton on Tor.com entitled “How Can This Be So Gripping? Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time” [2013] later in this post.

Now it’s discussion notes time:
  • The votes were all over the place here [which I greatly appreciated since we have had a few “liked” majority votes in a row]— 3 straight up liked, 5 disliked, and 4 so-sos, but 3 of them were leaning toward liked.
  • The disliked comments were:
    • I disliked it because I don’t particularly like English History
    • I was very confused with all of the characters.
  • The so-so comments were:
    • I didn’t care who killed the princes but I found the investigative work interesting
    • Yes, once the researcher got there, I was hooked, but up to that, I was confused and disinterested.
  • The liked comments were:
    • I like English History in general, so I enjoyed this.
    • I loved the idea of thinking about what if the Tudors never got to take over the monarchy so fascinating.  I like revisionist history in general.
    • I loved that Tey used a fiction genre to sort out fact from fiction in a historical mystery.  She played with the genre and played with the notion of the authority of history brilliantly.
    • I loved all of the research parts.  They were so interesting.
  • Question: What did you know about Richard III and the murders of the princes ahead of time?
    • Most of the group had heard the story that Richard had murdered the boys to capture the throne.  Also, most remembered that he was “disfigured.”  Finally, all of us remembered that a few years ago, Richard’s bones were found and positively identified.
    • After reading this book we all wanted to believe Grant’s conclusion that Richard was a good guy and had had his character ruined by the rival Tudors who took over after killing him in battle.
    • He could gain nothing by killing the boys, as Grant noted, so why would he have?  What a simple statement with so much truth.  Why had no one else thought of this?
    • Shakespeare writing 100 years later has really shaped the Richard III that everyone since has seen.
    • I like how Grant approached his research like he would a crime.  He looked at other people’s reaction to the things around them to see if there were breaks in regular patterns of behaviors and actions.  He looked at day-to-day documents, not just big moments.
  • Question: What about the title? What does it say about history and the truth
    • The full quote by Francis Bacon is “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.”
    • Truth can only come with time and distance.  Grant has both.  Centuries of distance and all of the time in the world. He spends the entire book confined to bed, mostly flat on his back.
    • Someone noted how important Tey sees “time” in this equation of finding the truth because the novel ends with the nurse saying to Grant about the portrait of Richard III, “When you look at it for a little it’s really quite a nice face, isn’t it?.”
    • Taking time to look at history can change what is perceived as “the truth.”
    • Becky then presented a quote from the author Jo Walton [see link mentioned in the introduction to this post] where she says of this novel, “But you can’t help thinking about it when you read The Daughter of Time because the subject of The Daughter of Time is how a lot of recorded history is bunk.  At the very least it causes the reader to interrogate history instead of accepting it.”
    • The group talked about how the book makes you question history.  We talked about how hard it is to write history without being influenced by your present, and how history always depends on who is writing it?
    • How do you determine what a fact is? Grant won’t make a conclusion of fact until he has a large enough collection of information, but then still has to make some assumptions based on the data.
    • Becky asked if everyone is going to “interrogate history” more after reading this novel? What resources can you trust? Can we trust anything? This was a productive line of questioning as we all shared our experiences with history and fact.  We talked a lot about changes in how much history people trust before 1951 when the novel was written vs. now.  A few people mentioned the Kennedy assassination and Nixon as huge turning points how we interact with the “facts” of history.
    • We wrapped up this line of discussion when someone said that it reminded her of how which news channel you watch can give you a completely different spin on the facts of the news.
  • Question: But can we distrust too much?
    • If we go overboard on questioning every fact, we attract things that are inaccurate too.  Think about conspiracy theorists.
    • I appreciate when a nonfiction author clearly states their assumptions or point of view at the outset of a book.  Then I know their slant and can take that into consideration when I am deciding for myself.
    • Tudor history is a great example here. There is a lot of work on both sides, the Traditional vs the Revisionist. It is important to know the slant going in.
  • Question: But we keep talking about nonfiction and History, but here, Tey chose to use fiction. let’s talk about that choice, because she obviously did a lot of research.
    • I loved how the historical fiction book Grant is reading and quotes from extensively to use as character witness for Richard is actually a fake novel. Tey made it all up.
    • Tey plays with the idea of history and the mystery genre a lot here.  I appreciated that as a reader.
    • This book is as much about the inquiry process—how to solve a mystery— as it is about finding THE TRUTH.
    • I was intrigued by the fact that from a police pov there is no case against Richard at all.
  • Question: What about Grant’s theory of faces which he is famous for using as an investigator?
    • Grant judges every person he sees as “Bench” [good guy] or “Dock” [bad guy]— basically placing them on one side of a criminal proceeding or the other.
    • One participant shared that she has judged most people she meets throughout her life by their eyes. “I have been well led by those assumptions.”
    • Be careful though.  When we look at people we bring our own biases with our sight.
    • In terms of the portrait Grant uses, who painted it matters too.  What were the painters biases?  Interestingly, one paperback copy is the one you see above and uses the portrait Grant looks at, but others in the group had a different paperback copy and it had a different portrait.  We compared how different they were.  Interesting. You can use the link in the readalikes section below to go to the Richard III Society’s page and see many portraits of Richard.
    • I think the theory of faces has value, said one participant who took a creative writing class once where they were shown portraits (like Grant is) and asked to write a story about the person portrayed.  Then, the teacher told them the true story of the person.  It was amazing how close to reality the class got just by looking at a portrait.
  • Question: Let’s talk about this as a historical mystery
    • Becky began by explaining that technically, this is NOT a historical mystery.  It is a mystery, contemporary to its time (1950s) that looks back into the past.
    • This was written just post WWII.  Churchill’s time as a huge hero.  He comes up 2 key times in the story.  Once as a big Richard III hater [this made someone interrupt with an “OH NO” since she loves Churchill and because of this book was now a Richard III lover too] and again as involved with the Tonypandy incident that is used as an example of history getting things completely wrong multiple times through the story.
    • Was Tey a Churchill hater?  Well, all fiction is a mirror to look at the present of when it is written, so what is she saying about her time?
    • I think she is making readers question their present and the history of their time as it is being written with this novel. She does not want to accept anyone as all good or all bad.  Time will judge them.
    • Someone said this made her think about Twitter or Comments sections on the Internet where unknown people can say anything and other people believe it is “truth.” The person commenting could be an idiot or a murderer.  We don’t know.
  • Question: This one comes from the Rap Sheet essay referred to in the introduction of this post.  Pierce ends it by asking, is this a great novel of its time, or a great novel for all time?
    • Before our discussion I would have said only for its time, but look at all the discussion we had.  It is better than I thought when reading it.
    • It made us talk about cable news and Twitter.  That makes it great for all time.
  • Word or phrase to describe the book:
    • truth telling
    • interrogate history
    • plodding
    • confusing
    • History
    • interrogative strategies
    • multilayered
    • fascinating
    • TRUTH
Readalikes: There are many ways to go here, but most people will be craving more info about Richard III.

For nonfiction options, there is a well respect book by Allison Weir, The Princes in the Tower, that actively argues against the conclusions Grant draws (or should be say Tey draws).

There is also an excellent book edited by Paul Kendall Murray, Richard the III, the Great Debate, that gives a broad picture of how unclear the true picture of who Richard was has been and remains.

And there is always the very well respected Richard III Society who have been promoting researching ton his life since 1924.  Even they are undecided.  Their recommended bibliography can be accessed here.

For more historical fiction set during a similar time period I would suggest the following titles, all by award winning historical fiction authors whose works promise a mixture of solid research and compelling storytelling:
For another excellent murder mystery with a Richard III frame, try The Murders of Richard III by Elizabeth Peters which is centered around a gathering of Richard III enthusiasts.

A few people in the group also mentioned the Japanese film Rashomon (1950) and it’s Hollywood remake The Outrage (1964).  Both deal with a murder and the witnesses who were all there but when asked have completely different stories of what happened.

Finally, for readers who could care less about all the Richard III stuff but were very intrigued by the incapacitated detective solving a mystery, try The Wench Is Dead by Colin Dexter.

One short editors note before I go.  Due to my vacation the Monday Book Club will be meeting on the 4th Monday in July to discuss Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier.

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