RogerBW's Blog

To Love and Be Wise, Josephine Tey 30 August 2014

Classic detective fiction; fourth, roughly, of Tey's novels of Inspector Alan Grant. An unreasonably beautiful young man visiting from America goes to the country to stay with casual acquaintances in a village that's been Discovered by writers and artists, causes social ructions, then disappears. What happened, and was it murder?

Unusually for a mystery, it's the final chapter before we even find that out for certain, which leaves an extra layer of mystery. For most of the narrative, we don't know whether Leslie Searle might have fallen, or been pushed, into the river and drowned (but then why hasn't his body turned up?); or might simply have walked out, got a lift with someone, and gone away (but why would he do that, and why didn't anyone see him?).

This to me is pretty much what detective stories should be. There's a cast of engaging characters, many of whom will obviously be red herrings, but it's enjoyable to read about them anyway. There's Walter Whitmore, the would-be Thoreau of the radio and the principal suspect; his fiancée, Liz Garrowby, who may have been falling for Searle; Emma, her protective adoptive mother, who wanted to make sure that the match between Liz and Walter wasn't confounded; Lavinia Fitch, Liz's employer, the writer of horrid but well-paid purple romances; Toby Tullis, the vastly successful playwright who always comes off just slightly too self-interested; Silas Weekley, "who writes those dark novels of country life, all steaming manure and slashing rain". Even he manages to avoid the clichéd stereotype.

And of course there's Grant himself, and his friend and entrée to the mystery the actress Marta Hallard. This is probably the Tey book with most of Marta, though of course she also appears in The Daughter of Time; possibly my favourite scene in the book is a dinner à deux where the two discuss the ongoing mystery.

But it's not just the characters; the actual mystery is a challenging and engaging one, though there's a long period during which we don't seem to collect much in the way of actual clues. All the necessary information is given, but it's admirably disguised among a barrage of irrelevancies. It is important to me that a mystery writer plays fair, and Tey does; there are no sudden plot twists that don't rely on information we've already been given. The eventual solution would, admittedly, probably have been considered a little more surprising in 1950 than it is now.

Thinking of things surprising in 1950, the edition I read (from Gutenberg Australia, a 1953 reprint of the first edition) describes two characters, one of them a servant, as having "watched a radio play" in their rooms on the night in question. Now, a wireless in one's room would be just about plausible, but "watched"? I checked a hard copy, a Pan paperback "re-set" in 1959 and printed in 1963, and in that it's a television play! Which simply breaks consistency; 1950, let us remember, was before the Coronation, when television sets were still a rare and unusual thing in the UK. To suggest that a house would have two of them, in bedrooms… no, it just doesn't work. Lieven Marchand reports that the 1978 Penguin has "she had heard a radio play", which I suspect was the author's original intent.

Yes, all right, this is a pretty minor point. Interesting to me, and common not only to Tey's stories but to most British fiction of this period, is a complete absence of mention of the war: people had done that, and now they wanted to get back to their normal lives. This may be why Tey is so particularly good for escapist reading.

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