Scottish author Elizabeth Mackintosh (1896 - 1952), better known by her pseudonym, Josephine Tey, 1934. She also wrote historical plays under the name Gordon Daviot. (Photo by Sasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Josephine Tey, woman of mystery

Deeply private, her elegant and sharply engaging writing has often been wrongly overlooked

Artillery Row Books

Penguin Books has breathed new life into an old imprint. Penguin Crime paperbacks, which first appeared in regulation green jackets seventy-five years ago, comprised fiendish mysteries and tales of murder most foul from the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Agatha Christie. The Crime & Espionage series that launched last year revives and expands on the original range. Once again resplendent in green livery, the titles released so far in two tranches of ten consist of perennial favourites of the genre along with overlooked or forgotten gems.

Josephine Tey was the pseudonym of one Elizabeth MacKintosh

There are pairs of books by the usual suspects: two novels of cloak-and-dagger skulduggery by John le Carré, two thrillers by Eric Ambler, two Inspector Maigret cases by Georges Simenon and two hardboiled offerings from Raymond Chandler featuring his world-weary, wise-cracking sleuth Philip Marlowe. Works salvaged from obscurity by Michael Gilbert, Anthony Price and Dick Lochte deserve to be rediscovered, while Len Deighton’s alternative history SS-GB (1978), in which a Scotland Yard detective hunting a killer in occupied Britain becomes enmeshed in “the repressive, death-dealing machinery of the Nazi administration”, demands to be reread. 

To date, only two female authors have secured a place on Penguin’s list. One is Dorothy B. Hughes, who makes the cut with her stylish, noirish In a Lonely Place (1947). The other is Josephine Tey, who is allotted a book in each batch. Tey is a worthy addition — a necessary one, even — but she won’t be as familiar to readers as those other past masters. 

It isn’t that Tey was denied success or acclaim during her lifetime. Her novels sold well and have never been out of print since they were first published in the 1920s. The best of them have been hailed as classics from the Golden Age of detective fiction, rivalling standout works by Tey’s key contemporaries, those doyennes of the genre and dominant forces of the era — Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and the “Queen of Crime” herself, Christie. Indeed, Tey’s biographer, Jennifer Morag Henderson, ranks her as “number Five to the Big Four”. 

Despite posthumous plaudits and longevity in print, Tey has never received the attention she merits. For many, she remains an unknown quantity — an image she cultivated during her life. Josephine Tey was the pseudonym of one Elizabeth MacKintosh, born in Inverness in 1896. Tey wasn’t the only alias MacKintosh assumed. She enjoyed success as the playwright Gordon Daviot, and her first play, Richard of Bordeaux, helped launch the career of John Gielgud. 

But it is Tey’s well-crafted and elegantly written detective novels that have endured. Six of them feature Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, a faceless and borderline bland protagonist, yet one with presence, intuitive discernment and, as Tey writes, “the most priceless of all attributes for his job: flair.” 

Tey lived something of a double life, hiding behind pen-names and shuttling between London and Scotland. She described herself to a friend as a “lone wolf” and didn’t promote her work or write an autobiography. She died in 1952, leaving her money to the National Trust.

Tey’s debut novel, The Man in the Queue (1929), remains the best point of entry to her remarkable oeuvre. The opening chapter sees Tey cutting to the chase. A man faints while queuing to see a musical comedy at a London theatre. Then someone notices the object protruding from his back: not a dagger but a thin, sharp stiletto, “a wicked little weapon in its viperish slenderness.” 

Tey was no standard-fare detective novelist

When Inspector Grant takes on the case, he views the body (“It was almost incredible that so small a hole had let a man’s life out”), mulls over the murder and rules out certain perpetrators: “This was a crime that had been planned with an ingenuity and executed with a subtlety that was foreign to an Englishman’s habit of thought.” Among the victim’s effects is a fully loaded service revolver but it doesn’t have his fingerprints on it. Grant soon discovers that the identity of the dead man is as much a mystery as the identity of the killer. After eliminating gang involvement, and after trying to make head or tail of an anonymous letter with money enclosed “To bury the man who was found in the queue”, Grant’s sleuthwork takes him north to hunt a fugitive in the Scottish Highlands.

To Love and Be Wise (1950) also sees Grant on the move, this time visiting a remote English village to investigate the disappearance of a Hollywood photographer. Tey’s Salcott St Mary turns out to be a very different place to Christie’s St Mary Mead. Nothing is what is seems in this “artistic thieves’-kitchen” of writers and painters with their grudges, grievances and guilty consciences. Grant measures these “subterranean tremors”, collects testimonies, sifts alibis and evaluates the significance of a stolen glove, a buckled shoe and other anomalies. He eventually smells a rat — or rather detects “a strong aroma of sawn-lady” — and in a superb twist realises he is up against someone who has duped him from the very beginning.

And then there is Tey’s finest work from 1951, The Daughter of Time. Voted the greatest crime novel ever written by the Crime Writers’ Association, it involves Grant getting to grips with a particularly cold case. While recuperating from a broken leg in hospital, he takes a friend’s advice and uses his time to try to solve an age-old mystery: did Richard III really murder his two nephews, the Princes in the Tower? With help from an American researcher at the British Museum, Grant goes over the facts and debunks a few myths to finally determine whether the last Plantagenet king was a merciless villain or a hapless victim.

A bedridden police inspector trawling the centuries to get to the bottom of a historical crime is not the premise of a standard-fare detective novel. But Tey was no standard-fare detective novelist. “Was everyone nowadays thirled to a formula?” a convalescent Grant asks himself. His creator refused to be. Tey subverted the crime fiction genre by going her own way and covering new ground. Her books question the notion of foul play: The Man in the Queue appears to have no villain in it; the non-Grant murder mystery Miss Pym Disposes (1946) leaves the reader in the dark as to what that mystery is until the last third of the book. Tey’s cases don’t often open with a body in the first chapter, nor do they conclude with a tidy drawing-room denouement. 

But change is coming: Scotland will soon be free from “the murderous burden of the English yoke”

Unlike her peers and their period pieces, Tey feels like a modern writer for the way she grapples with complex issues. While Grant looks for his missing man in To Love and Be Wise, Tey branches out and explores sexuality and identity. And when Grant returns to Scotland in pursuit of a killer in his last outing, The Singing Sands (1952), Tey uses the occasion to scrutinise Scottish nationalism.

In this posthumously published novel, Grant visits a Hebridean island and meets Wee Archie, a kilt-and-bonnet-clad “revolutionary” who lectures him on Scotland’s glories and England’s iniquities. England, for Archie, is a blood-sucking vampire that has drained Scotland dry. But change is coming: Scotland will soon be free from “the murderous burden of the English yoke.” When an American voices his disagreement with this and tells Grant that Scots are “the kind of people to get the best of whatever bargain was going”, Grant turns to a friend and crisply remarks, “Did you ever hear the Union better described?”

Tey may have been a fiercely private woman who kept low profile, but in this book she was happy to nail her political colours firmly to the mast and flag up Archie’s “perversion of patriotism”. More importantly, Tey ensured, both here and elsewhere, that her asides on topics such as nationhood, history and gender did not detract from her plot or impede narrative momentum. 

What often makes Tey truly stand out among her contemporaries is the quality of her prose. Take this description of Grant’s view from a train as it leaves London in The Man in the Queue: “Even the awful little suburban villas had lost that air of aggressiveness born of their inferiority complex, and were shining self-forgetful and demure in the clear light […] Here and there a line of gay motley child’s clothes danced and ballooned with the breeze in a necklace of coloured laughter.” And then later: “At noon London made you a present of an entertainment, rich and varied and amusing. But at midnight she made you a present of herself; at midnight you could hear her breathe.”

Tey’s considerable talents are on full display in Penguin’s two reissues, both masterclasses in deception. Her 1948 novel The Franchise Affair centres around alleged kidnappers and a supposed hostage, and boasts murky shenanigans and a genuinely compelling villain. Brat Farrar (1949) is a devious tale about an orphan who is groomed to play a dangerous game of impersonation to secure a large fortune.  

It’s a pity that Penguin didn’t do what it has done with Simenon, Deighton and le Carré and also released all of Tey’s novels in its Modern Classics range. Still, aficionados already know the calibre of her books, and any effort to raise her profile and attract new admirers is to be welcomed. 

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