Mothers of Sisters: Josephine Tey

by Linda Triegel

Elizabeth MacKintosh, who wrote mystery novels under the name Josephine Tey, was an intensely private person. Little is known of her life, but her fans are more than satisfied with reading her eight classic short mysteries over and over.

The Man in the QueueWhat is known is that she was born in 1896 in Inverness, Scotland and she attended school there. She studied and taught physical training, a background that comes to light in Miss Pym Disposes (published 1946).

A Shilling for CandlesThe Daughter of Time, perhaps her most famous novel, was the last of Tey’s books published during her lifetime. She died in 1952. A further crime novel, The Singing Sands, was found in her papers and published posthumously. Proceeds from Tey’s estate, including royalties from her books, were assigned to the National Trust.
To Love and Be WiseIn five of her eight mystery novels, the hero is Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant. I personally find Grant more appealing than the detective heroes in other period mysteries (Peter Wimsey, Roderick Alleyn, et al), in part perhaps because he is less graphically defined in the books.

The Daughter of TimeGrant, like the others, doesn’t fit the conventional idea of a policeman (one wonders what the genuine article looked like). Grant is a bachelor, “six-feet-odd” (in The Daughter of Time) “slight of build” and “chic” of dress (The Man in the Queue). He is well off financially, having inherited money from an aunt in Australia to supplement his salary from the Yard.

The Singing SandsHe is human enough to have a hobby, (fishing – which he describes to his doctor as “somewhere between a sport and a religion”), to be a little on the clumsy side (falling through a trap door while chasing a crook lands him in the hospital where he discovers the perils of historical research in The Daughter of Time), and to suffer from overwork like any other civil servant (the fishing was prescribed for an attack of nerves leading to Scotland and The Singing Sands).

The Franchise Affair (Inspector Alan Grant)Grant also appears in A Shilling for Candles (1936) and To Love and Be Wise (1950), but only fleetingly in The Franchise Affair (1948) and not at all in Miss Pym Disposes and Brat Farrar (1949).

Brat FarrarMacKintosh wrote plays and other works under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot, most famously Richard of Bordeaux (about Richard III), which made a household name of its young leading man and director, John Gielgud. The Man in the Queue was first published under her Daviot pseudonym in 1929 as A Killer in the Crowd.

Miss Pym DisposesTey was, in my opinion, terrific at characterization, particularly of minor characters, from Grant’s glamorous actress friend Marta Hallard to his sergeant, “large and pink and scrubbed looking”, to the charming young men in several of her novels, including Marta’s “woolly lamb” in The Daughter of Time and the artist eager to abet Grant in The Man in the Queue. This is part of what makes her books so re-readable, and my favorite novel changes from time to time based largely on the characters. It’s currently The Singing Sands.

Mothers of Sisters – an occasional personal look at the classic mysteries of the writers who helped make our genre “a suitable job for a woman”