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Josephine Tey

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Biography of Josephine Tey

Pseudonym for Elizabeth Mackintosh. Other Pseudonym: Gordon Daviot. Nationality: British. Born: Inverness, Scotland, 1897. Education: Royal Academy, Inverness; Anstey Physical Training College, Birmingham. Career: Taught physical education in various schools in the 1920s. Lived in London. Died: 13 February 1952.

Josephine Tey's novels of mystery and detection are often categorized with those of Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. While her work differs from theirs in several respects, it undoubtedly belongs to the Golden Age of detective fiction. Her style is pure, her plots and characters carefully wrought, and her adherence to the classical traditions dependable. Tey wrote several non-series examples of detection and mystery in addition to her creation of the gentleman-police officer Alan Grant, whose shoes never revealed his status as CID investigator.

Tey's amateur detectives are each different from the other. In Miss Pym Disposes a former French teacher who has casually and flippantly written a popular psychology book begins to believe in her ability to understand the human psyche. At a girls' physical education college, which is described with fascinating details of programs of study, sport activities, and employment inquiries, Miss Pym undertakes the discovery of the murderer of an unpleasant student. The investigation gives Tey great opportunity to describe an improbable gathering of teenaged physical education students: the independent and attractive Head Girl, "Beau" Nash; her pleasant, intelligent, competent friend, Mary Innes; and the fiery Latin American exchange student, far more sexually mature than her peers, who wants only to dance.

Miss Pym's faith in discovering people's guilt in crime by understanding their personalities is shared by lawyer Robert Blair who solves The Franchise Affair for his client Marion Sharpe. Unfortunately, Tey's adaptation of a true 18th-century crime is somewhat slow-paced and the tracking down of the accused seems too casually accomplished. The important developments in concluding the investigation appear later in the novel so that character study is the most significant activity: Tey draws vivid pictures of old Mrs. Sharpe and Blair's maiden Aunt Lin; even the girl Betty is clearly portrayed, her child's demure face and costume hiding a devious and self-centered core.

Deliberate detective work is minimized in Tey's only other non-Alan Grant mystery, Brat Farrar. A young man who closely resembles the dead son of a comfortable, horse-breeding English family, agrees to impersonate the young man, who is thought to have killed himself. The relationship between the imposter and his "family," including a young relative who begins to love him in a very unfamilial way, seems to provide the center of the story. However, the young man stumbles upon information about his new identity which could lead to murder. The difficulties of continuing the investigation and the imposture simultaneously are intertwined; the answer to one is the solution to both.

Although Alan Grant is a fairly fixed character throughout several novels, neither courting nor marrying (unlike Lord Peter Wimsey and Roderick Alleyn), he is clearly as significant a creation and as personal and human a character. His personality is defined in his first appearance in The Man in the Queue and while other characteristics are revealed subsequently, he is reliably predictable in his behavior. Recipient of a comfortable legacy, Grant chose to continue police work for the satisfaction he received in working out the puzzles of an investigation. He is a gentleman at the Yard (like Roderick Alleyn) and his manner and manners are intelligent and well-bred. Natty without looking like a tailor's dummy, he is more successful with the upper classes than his faithful Watson, Sergeant Williams; his unfailing courtesy makes him equally successful with the lower orders and the criminal class. His enjoyment of the sport and open spaces of the countryside is a common motif in the novels and is employed as a cure for his claustrophobia, induced by a severe injury. This "weakness," as Grant calls it in The Singing Sands, mortifies him; his investigations, requiring rides in closed cars, trains, and small aeroplanes, provide the motive to conquer rather than avoid this fear. When he finds a major clue to a mystery, he is suddenly able to make a return plane trip without this debilitating and demoralizing fear. This method of not concentrating on his most serious problem is also Grant's style of detection: while his chief "worries a case to death," Grant deliberately puts if from his mind when he reaches a stalemate to let his unconscious find the next move. Because of his good fortune in using this technique, he is credited by his colleagues with "flair." It should be acknowledged that Grant's flair often misleads him in his investigations; The Man in the Queue is the best example of perfect deduction being entirely wrong.

Grant's most famous case, in The Daughter of Time, is undertaken from a hospital bed as he reexamines the supposed murder by Richard III of his two nephews in the Tower of London in the 1480s. This famous crime, unchallenged in school texts and magnified by Shakespeare's successful portrayal of villainy personified, intrigues Grant who investigates contemporary sources to learn of Richard's innocence. When he and his assistant prove their case, both are shocked to discover their conclusions supported by similar claims since the 17th century; none has shaken the general public's belief. Grant's dismay and American Brent Carradine's crusade to educate are at the heart of the novel. Tey's introduction of similar episodes of belief opposing fact and her cast of characters ranged against Grant and Carradine's truth demonstrate the potency of "hearsay evidence." The intensity of Grant's search for accurate information mystifies his nurses, the porter, and sometimes even friends. Besides being a unique example of detection, the novel clearly presents the difficulty of establishing facts in the face of people's preference for what they believe to be the truth.

Because Tey writes so compelling a mystery novel, she is unquestionably one of the most significant authors in the genre. But her talent is not limited to the plotting and deducing of that form; in her detective and her characters she creates credible personalities whose individuality and relationships are realistic and complex. Beyond this, she is concerned, at the core of her work, with moral questions which go beyond the conventions of detective fiction without ever being extraneous to the carefully controlled structure and plot. The critical and popular success of her eight detective novels arrests to the unmistakably fine quality of her work.

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