How Can This Be So Gripping? Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time

You probably heard that they found the bones of Richard III a few days ago, under a car park in Leicester. Actually they found them a while ago, but they’ve now been confirmed to be his bones from forensic and DNA evidence. Naturally, this immediately led me to pick up Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, a book I’ve read so many times that I’m now on my third copy. It’s about Richard III, of course, but it’s not about Richard III in any normal way. It’s not a historical novel, it’s a detective story, and when you think about it it’s very odd. I first read it as a teenager. It was my first Tey. I went on to read and re-read everything she wrote. I find her compulsively readable. Whatever it is that makes me get completely sucked into a book and keep on reading and come out blinking hours later when I need to put the lights on to keep seeing the page, that thing Heinlein has for me, Tey has it too.

Inspector Grant is Tey’s recurring detective character, and here we find him in a hospital bed, bored. He is bored by the hospital, by his nurses, and by his available fiction choices—each one a type, a frothy romance, a cosy detective story, a noir, a Regency, a modern romance etc. It is possible to deduce by the existence of Cold Comfort Farm and the novel described here, The Sweat and the Furrow by Silas Weekley, that there was a whole genre of “realistic” books about farming and sex and misery. I have read none of those books, and only deduce their existence because two different writers parodied them in a way that leads me to see their shadow. One wishes to take Grant a whole pile of copies of Astounding, but before I have a chance to get on my time machine, he gets interested in researching Richard III and the plot’s away.

This is a book about research. It’s the story of chasing Richard through secondary sources and primary sources and putting together the clues to discover who really killed the Princes in the Tower. Grant doesn’t get out of bed; a subordinate, a friend, the nurses and eventually a research assistent bring him books and information. He starts from a portrait of Richard and works outwards from there. It’s either a very faithful portrait of how writers do research or I learned how to do research from reading this. (I genuinely wouldn’t care to guess which.)

It isn’t perfect. There’s far too much of Grant’s uncanny ability to read character from faces—which one could argue makes it fantasy. There’s also far too much of the Velikovskyan style of argument that goes “The facts are A. Somebody did B. How could anybody possibly do B when faced with A? We must therefore have the facts wrong.” I find no difficulty imagining people who do B. Maybe I just have a wider imagination, or maybe I get out more.

I have not independently investigated the argument that Richard didn’t kill the Princes in the Tower. It’s not my period. I’ve heard people argue that Tey’s cheating and leaving things out. I honestly couldn’t say. I find Tey’s Richard and Shakespeare’s Richard interesting fictional characters, and the same goes for John M. Ford’s Richard, who did kill the princes in the tower but only because they were vampires… and I think the relationship of all three of these constructs to the bones they dug up in Leicester is symbolic rather than actual. But you can’t help thinking about it when you read The Daughter of Time because the subject of The Daughter of Time is how a lot of received history is bunk. At the very least it causes the reader to interrogate history instead of accepting it.

But what I love about the book is the details, the way the research winds through the books, the little “o”s coloured in on the page of the child’s history, and the hospital food, and Brent Carradine’s indignation across time with John Morton.

There are several series characters here, though it doesn’t matter at all if you haven’t read the other books and don’t recognise them. Marta Halland and the authors of several of the awful books are in To Love and Be Wise, and Marta is also in several other books. Sergeant Williams is in all of them. The new characters, the nurses, doctor, matron, the researcher Carradine, and Grant’s landlady, are all beautifully drawn. It’s clear she intended them to be caricatures, but she breathed life into them. Of course, the book is geninely funny here and there. And there’s a joke for Tey enthusiasts—not only has Grant seen her play (as Gordon Daviot) Richard of Bordeaux, but Marta is trying to get a female playwright to write something for her and the playwright sidles off to write a detective story instead.

None of which explains why this is a book that I’ve read twenty times and can pick up again and be entirely engrossed by to the point of missing my stop on the metro, or why I wanted to read this again because they’ve found Richard’s body.

Should you live in Australia, you might be interested to know that Tey died in 1952 and her books are therefore out of copyright there and available on Gutenberg Australia. She left her copyrights to the National Trust which preserves historic sites in Britain (England is thickly seeded with king’s bones), so people who live where she is still in copyright can at least feel confident that their money is going to a good cause.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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