15#: Josephine Tey: The Daughter of Time

Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951) is a true detective masterpiece. Written shortly before Tey’s death, the book offers a thoughtful reflection on the way that we construct, receive and understand history. The novel takes place almost entirely in a hospital bed, as Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant attempts to stave off his boredom whist recovering from a broken leg. In an attempt to alleviate Grant’s frustration at being kept from his work, friend and actress Marta Hallard suggests that Grant should distract himself by reading historical mysteries. When Grant dismisses this idea, she decides instead to humor his interest in physiognomy and profiling by bringing in portraits of various historical figures. He is immediately struck by the ambiguous image of Richard III, a King who has been much maligned in both history and art. Although Grant prides himself on his ability to discern ones character through a reading of their physical features,  he finds it almost impossible to reconcile the gentle image he perceives with Richards’s supposedly tyrannous and violent actions.

Questioning the reasons why Richard has been so vilified in history, Grant begins to investigate the King’s life, in particular the case of the Princes in the Tower. Immersing himself in historical documents, textbooks and testimonies provided by a researcher at the British Museum, Grant concludes that Richard could have not possibly murdered the princes. Not only does he doubt the supposed evidence, but he sees this heinous act as irreconcilable with the consistency and integrity of Richard’s character outside of this event. He concludes instead that the blaming of Richard for the deaths was part of a broader Tudor propaganda plan, a way to tarnish Richard’s name after he was supplanted from the throne. He makes similar summations concerning Richard’s supposed disfigurements (hunch back, withered arm), arguing that it would have been impossible to be the great warrior he was whilst suffering with these particular psychical ailments.

The novel ultimately explores the construction of history, particularly how certain events become cemented in the public consciousness.  In the process, it comes to the almost obvious and well trodden conclusion that history is written by the victors…..who would have thought it? Despite this, The Daughter of Time is a brilliant and thought provoking novel, one packed full of historical insight and still strangely gripping considering its almost claustrophobic setting. No matter how much you resist, you will almost definitely find yourself rooting for Richard by the end of the novel. As a detective novel, Tey’s text is excellent, but for scholars of Richard III – or history more broadly – the case exonerating the maligned King is perhaps a little shaky. Ultimately, Grant’s justification for Richard’s innocence is predicated on the somewhat faulty logic that ‘he does not look like a killer’. Although some of the evidence he unearths supports this view of the King’s character, as a reader you are still left questioning the value of such physiognomic assumptions.

Either way, The Daughter of Time is a fantastic book and a must read for fans of any form of detective fiction. The novel is all the more interesting in the context of the recent exhumation of Richard’s bones, after they were discovered buried under a car park in Leicester (oh the regal glamour). After years of academic jousting over the nature of, or truth behind, Richard’s deformities, the discovery that he in did in fact suffer from severe scoliosis is fascinating, particularly when placed in the context of the other events swirling around the rumor mill (i.e princes in the tower). Who was it that said there is no smoke without fire…..?

#16: Peter Ackroyd: ‘Hawksmoor’

At #16 is Peter Ackroyd’s unconventional historical mystery Hawksmoor (1985). The first thing to say about Ackroyd’s novel is that it can only be very loosely considered crime fiction. As is the case with much of Ackroyd’s work, Hawksmoor oscillates between two seemingly incongruous time periods and plot lines. The first of these is set in the early eighteenth-century and centres around architect Nicholas Dyer’s manic construction of seven satanic churches around the East End of London. Dyer is a fictionalization of real life architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, who was commissioned to construct these very same churches in 1711 as part of an attempt to rebuild London’s Christian architecture following the damage caused by the great fire. Unbeknownst to mentor Christopher Wren, Dyer draws on his deep fascination with the occult to inspire his design of the churches. Part of this involves undertaking human sacrifices on the site of each new construction.

Meanwhile, in the 20th century, DCS Nicholas Haksmoor is tasked with investigating a mysterious string of murders that have occurred on the grounds of the very same churches. The baffling nature of the crimes is further compounded by the bizarre lack of forensic evidence left by the killer. As you might suspect, one of the central themes of the novel is the circularity of time, as events from both time periods seems to swirl into a disorientating ‘perpetual present’. This becomes most forcefully manifested in the psychic resonance of London’s palimpsestic topography. As Detective Hawksmoor delves deeper into the source of the killings and history of the churches, the spectral spaces of the city become a potent source of convergence between different time periods and characters.

Part postmodern narrative, part historical novel and part detective text, Hawksmoor is a an original and thought provoking novel. A must for fans of both crime and history!