RogerBW's Blog

A Shilling for Candles, Josephine Tey 06 October 2020

1936 detective fiction; second of Tey's novels of Inspector Alan Grant. A film star's body washes up on a beach in Kent; it might have been an accidental drowning, but for a small piece of evidence.

There's definite progress here. There aren't sudden outbursts of floridity; the writing is just generally solid rather than being saved for the good bits. On the other hand, there are still significant diversions that make the actual business of solving the case take second place to simply following Grant and others around and watching them work.

He considered the good-natured feckless face dispassionately. He had known at least one murderer who had had that type of good looks; blue-eyed, amiable, harmless; and he had buried his dismembered fiancée in an ash pit.

So there's the ne'er-do-well who, if he's guilty, really ought to have come up with a better story; and the chief constable's daughter who's sure he isn't guilty even when things start to point towards him, and sets out to prove it (and doesn't get automatically thrown into a romance with him); there's the brother who went off on his own path, and who's left the titular shilling for candles in the will; there's the husband who claims to have been in France but seems to have arrived in Dover a crucial few hours early; there's the smart set in London including the star's songwriter, and an astrologer who is now famous for having forecast the death… all of these things are great fun to read about. The problem is that by the nature of a detective story not all of them can be relevant, and while the proportion of red herring isn't as high as in The Man in the Queue I can't help feeling that the detective story is more of a skeleton on which to hang the stories of people than it is the main point of the book. Especially when it comes to Jammy Hopkins the reporter…

What did the Yard want to take it like that for? Everyone knew that what you wrote in a paper was just eyewash. When it wasn't bilgewater. If you stopped being dramatic over little tuppenny no-account things, people might begin to suspect that they were no-account, and then they'd stop buying papers. And where would the Press barons, and Jammy, and a lot of innocent shareholders be then? You'd got to provide emotions for all those moribund wage-earners who were too tired or too dumb to feel anything on their own behalf. If you couldn't freeze their blood, then you could sell them a good sob or two.

Not that I mind reading the stories of people when they're this good, but considering the book as a detective story this is a flaw in it.

On the other hand the actor-talk is surely inspired by Tey's experience working with them in London and as a contract writer in Hollywood, and comes off as real; and while Grant's own personality may remain something of a cipher there are other characters more fully developed.

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Previous in series: The Man in the Queue | Series: Inspector Grant | Next in series: The Franchise Affair

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