The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

July 25, 2016

July 25, 1896

The Singing Sands (1952) was the last crime novel Josephine Tey (July 25, 1896 to February 13, 1952) published. 
The reputation of Tey has grown since her death but she herself remains a figure of some mystery.

What we do know is summarized in this review from 2014.

From time to time, audiences ask crime writers who we would choose if we could have a single new novel from a dead crime writer. The name that comes up most frequently is not Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle or Raymond Chandler... No, the writers’ choice is a reclusive Scottish spinster who wrote only a handful of crime novels: Josephine Tey.

Partly that’s because of the range and quality of her work. Reading Tey for the first time is a surprise and a delight.. But of equal importance is Tey’s role as a bridge between the classic detective stories of the golden age and contemporary crime fiction. She left the genre in a different place from where she found it and she cracked open a series of doors for others to walk through.

But first, a little about the woman and her work. And where the woman is concerned, it will be a little. Elizabeth Mackintosh aka Gordon Daviot aka Josephine Tey was pathologically private. She never gave interviews, posed for publicity photos only under duress and managed to keep her private life a mystery. In the last year of her life, when she knew she was dying, she avoided contact even with her closest friends because she didn’t want anyone to know...

What we do know is this. She was born in Inverness in 1896... Her father was a fruiterer, her mother a teacher, and Tey followed in her mother’s footsteps, taking advantage of her physical agility to train as a gymnastics teacher at a college near Birmingham – a long way from Inverness, in every sense.

The First World War was at its height, and there are hints that Tey suffered a tragic loss during that conflict, though no details survive. Besides, it would be hard to find anyone in Britain untouched by grief in those four years. But she was far from home, and it may well be that the roots of her self-containment were planted then.

While she was still a student, she ran fitness classes for factory workers and in the holidays, she volunteered as a nurse for convalescing soldiers. After she qualified, she taught PE... in Oban... But before she had published a thing, her mother died, and when she was 30, Tey returned to Inverness to keep house for her widowed father.

One advantage of removing herself from the world of routine work was that it gave her time to practise her craft as a writer. And three years later, in 1929, her first attempt at detective fiction,
The Man in the Queue, won a mystery novel prize run by the publishing house Dutton. The book was published under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot, a name she later used as a playwright and writer of historical fiction. It was also the name she liked friends and associates to use in her private life.

It would be another seven years before she returned to the mystery novel, and her next breakthrough was a life-changer. She wrote a play about Richard II,
Richard of Bordeaux, which was produced in 1933 in London’s West End starring John Gielgud. It became the theatrical sensation of the year. It pried Tey loose from the narrow confines of Inverness society and gave her another life amid the glamour and excitement of the theatrical world.
[H]er final novel  The Singing Sands opens [with], Grant ... taking leave from his Scotland Yard job because he’s going through a kind of breakdown. He can’t sleep, he’s suffering from panic attacks and claustrophobia and he’s in the grip of some sort of depression. It’s hard to imagine Hercule Poirot in the throes of such psychological torment. It’s certainly impossible to picture any of the hard-boiled American heroes revealing a similar vulnerability. Already the convention of the capable and emotionally resilient detective was well established....

Questions of identity permeate her novels.
Brat Farrar hinges on whether a young man is truly who he purports to be; The Franchise Affair turns on whether a mother and daughter have a secret life that verges on the perverse; Miss Pym Disposes is only a mystery because issues of sexuality were so deeply submerged in that time and place that they were unthinkable as part of the solution to a crime; To Love and Be Wise is entirely shaped by fixed notions of gender. Masks and the identities they hide run through her work like the unifying thread in a tapestry.

And it is that fascination with who we really are and what actually shapes our relationships that is the key to Tey’s role as the bridge between the golden age and contemporary crime fiction. She started writing at a time when the genre appeared only to have space for the most conventional of connections between men and women and where secrets were only valid when they had a direct bearing on the commission of a murder, either as clear motive or as red herring.

Even then, those secrets were defined within relatively narrow tramlines. Conventional secrets, you might say. ...

But Tey opened up the possibility of unconventional secrets. Homosexual desire, cross-dressing, sexual perversion – they were all hinted at, glimpsed in the shadows as a door closed or a curtain twitched. ...her world revealed a different set of psychological motivations.

Without Tey cracking open the door, I don’t know how easy it would have been for writers such as Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell to have begun their own explorations of the darker side of humanity...

This all makes Tey sound very worthy. Someone we should read because of her place in the canon. But she is so much more than that. She writes vividly...

That lucid descriptive style works just as well on character as it does on landscape. Tey was a shrewd observer of people in all walks of life and of all ages. In a few strokes of the pen, she brings them to life, provoking smiles and nods of recognition in her readers. ...

An example of her excellence is this glimpse of a minor character in The Singing Sands:

"He was a bachelor ex-serviceman with a short leg, a cat, a collection of china mugs, and a passion for darts...."

Josephine Tey left all her assets to the National Trust.

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