A Smooth Man in a Trilby

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I was 13 and mad about horses when I was presented with Brat Farrar. The name of its author, Josephine Tey, meant nothing to me at the time and the title didn’t tell me much either, but it had a picture of a horse on the cover, and that was enough for me. It proved to be the story of an imposture in which the reader knows more than the characters. I read it then and loved it, and I still do. Some years later, browsing through a box of second-hand books outside a small antique shop, I came across another of Tey’s books and, remembering the first, went in and bought it. It cost 10p. Thus began a lifelong devotion.

Josephine Tey was a Scot, born Elizabeth Mackintosh in Inverness in 1896. She graduated from a physical training college near Birmingham and worked in various schools, and as a VAD nurse during the Great War. By 1923, her mother was dying, so she returned to Inverness and then stayed on to care for her father. Here, she began a new career, writing poems, short stories and plays. Always anxious to maintain her privacy, she adopted the pen-name of Gordon Daviot, a name by which some readers, including even her Times obituarist, knew her ever after.

Her first and most successful play was Richard of Bordeaux which opened in the West End in 1932 starring John Gielgud, who became a lifelong friend. Subsequent plays did less well, and perhaps it was this that made her concentrate on fiction. Now writing as Josephine Tey (taken from her mother’s Christian name and her English grandmother’s surname), she wrote eleven novels, mostly detective stories, between 1929 and 1952. They were an instant success and several were made into films. She died of liver cancer at the age of 55, and her last novel, The Singing Sands (1952), was published posthumously.

My 10p book was The Man in the Queue (1929), the first to feature Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard. A recurrent sleuth has always been a favoured device for thriller

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I was 13 and mad about horses when I was presented with Brat Farrar. The name of its author, Josephine Tey, meant nothing to me at the time and the title didn’t tell me much either, but it had a picture of a horse on the cover, and that was enough for me. It proved to be the story of an imposture in which the reader knows more than the characters. I read it then and loved it, and I still do. Some years later, browsing through a box of second-hand books outside a small antique shop, I came across another of Tey’s books and, remembering the first, went in and bought it. It cost 10p. Thus began a lifelong devotion.

Josephine Tey was a Scot, born Elizabeth Mackintosh in Inverness in 1896. She graduated from a physical training college near Birmingham and worked in various schools, and as a VAD nurse during the Great War. By 1923, her mother was dying, so she returned to Inverness and then stayed on to care for her father. Here, she began a new career, writing poems, short stories and plays. Always anxious to maintain her privacy, she adopted the pen-name of Gordon Daviot, a name by which some readers, including even her Times obituarist, knew her ever after.

Her first and most successful play was Richard of Bordeaux which opened in the West End in 1932 starring John Gielgud, who became a lifelong friend. Subsequent plays did less well, and perhaps it was this that made her concentrate on fiction. Now writing as Josephine Tey (taken from her mother’s Christian name and her English grandmother’s surname), she wrote eleven novels, mostly detective stories, between 1929 and 1952. They were an instant success and several were made into films. She died of liver cancer at the age of 55, and her last novel, The Singing Sands (1952), was published posthumously.

My 10p book was The Man in the Queue (1929), the first to feature Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard. A recurrent sleuth has always been a favoured device for thriller-writers: Agatha Christie had her Hercule Poirot, Dorothy L. Sayers her Lord Peter Wimsey. However, in my opinion no one has ever invented a detective to equal the style and charm of Inspector Alan Grant.

We are not told much about Grant to begin with, but there are enough hints in the various books to put together a portrait. He lives in a flat in Wigmore Street with a housekeeper who looks after him, and he drives a respectable car, a lifestyle he can maintain due to a fortunate legacy from an aunt. He is a man of the world, fond of good dinners and knowledgeable about wine, and he often escorts Marta Hallard, the glamorous and talented actress who appears in many of the books: ‘If he was useful to Marta as a cavalier when she needed one, she was even more useful to him as a window on the world . . . Marta was Grant’s “leper’s squint” on the theatre.’ Of course, Tey knew a great deal about London theatre from her days as a playwright and frequently brought that knowledge into her novels.

Although Grant was supposedly born in a Midlands town, like his creator he has Scottish blood and takes every excuse to get up to the Highlands and go fishing. This love of fishing is a useful device. Once she has got him to Scotland, Tey can write freely about the rivers, moors and hills which she obviously loved deeply, but she also uses the ploy as part of Grant’s detective work. He can spend a day on the river, rod in hand, apparently enjoying his sport even if he catches no fish, and it provides him with the perfect cover for observing his suspect.

The Man in the Queue was a success, and the character of this new detective must surely have had something to do with it. The plot revolves around an inconspicuous man near the front of a long queue for the last performance of a popular musical. As the doors of the theatre open and the queue shuffles eagerly forward, the man slumps to the ground. ‘And rising slantwise from the grey tweed of his coat was a little silver thing that winked wickedly in the baleful light. It was the handle of a dagger.’

It is Grant of the Yard who is called in to solve the mystery. He swings into action, helped by his sidekick Sergeant Williams who is large and pink and who, to his chagrin, looks like everyone’s idea of a policeman. Together they scour London, but the man they want eludes them and flees to the Highlands. An arrest is made and the wanted man is brought back to London to stand trial. But Grant is worried. He has the uncomfortable feeling that he has got the wrong man. Unlike some other fictional detectives, Grant has the humility to believe he can be mistaken. Eventually, and I don’t want to give away the ending, he lights on the true murderer. As, indeed, he always will.

In Tey’s second book featuring Grant, A Shilling for Candles (1936), his role broadens. The body of a young woman, who turns out to be a well-known singer and actress, is discovered on a lonely beach. Grant alone is sure that this is not suicide. He pursues his instinct against the advice of his chief and, collecting around him an eclectic group of helpers and suspects, he triumphs at the end of an intricate plot. In her third book, The Franchise Affair (1948), Grant plays only a small part. In this strange case, a mother and daughter who live in a large isolated house called The Franchise are accused of abducting a young girl, keeping her locked up and forcing her to work for them. The local solicitor, asked for help, becomes fascinated by the women and it is he who follows up clues and eventually finds the answer. Grant remains in the background, available for advice, but making only one visit to The Franchise.

Probably the best-known of all Tey’s detective novels is The Daughter of Time (1951, see SF no. 8) in which a bedridden Grant amuses himself by trying to solve a historical mystery, that of the murder of the Princes in the Tower. This is a brilliant device. Grant can ruminate on a postcard-sized reproduction of the portrait of Richard III (now in the National Gallery) while a young assistant with access to the British Museum Reading Room does the research, consulting many books on the fifteenth century and rudely dismissing Thomas More’s definitive account as mere hearsay. Despite all the action being confined to Grant’s hospital room, the reader is taken through Richard’s reign at an energetic canter. The conclusion, that Henry VII was certainly the killer of the two boys and Richard III an innocent who has been vilified by history, may not please everyone, but it satisfied Grant and makes for a very good story. Indeed, in 1990 the book was chosen by the British Crime Writers’ Association as the greatest mystery novel of all time.

Fishing clothes aside, when in London Alan Grant is always well turned out. In some later editions, the illustrator Mark Smith represents him as dressed in a suit with a tie, well-polished shoes, sometimes a classic belted mackintosh, always a brown trilby: pleasingly, this is exactly as I had imagined him.

If Grant had an asset beyond the usual ones of devotion to duty and a good supply of brains and courage . . . the last thing he looked like was a police officer. He was of medium height and slight in build, and he was – now, if I say dapper, of course you will immediately think of something like a tailor’s dummy, something perfected out of all individuality, and Grant is most certainly not that.

He is also popular. So why has this delightful man never married? Although not particularly sociable, he is highly eligible. Occasionally his thoughts do run on marriage, for example with Marta Hallard or with Zoe, Lady Kintallen, an attractive widow who is also passionate about fishing. Perhaps Josephine Tey was a little in love with her charming creation and wanted to keep him to herself. Or perhaps there is some slight ambiguity about him. In the last Grant novel, The Singing Sands, he is travelling to the Highlands, on the advice of a psychologist, after suffering from a breakdown during which he has been prey to claustrophobia and panic attacks. He is half-ashamed of admitting to such weakness, but a quiet time of recuperation at the home of his cousin Laura is needed. He also intends to do some fishing. Given the times, could this be a clue to something that could not be spoken of or written about openly?

It is now nearly seventy years since Inspector Alan Grant made his last appearance. It is interesting to speculate on how a twenty-first-century Grant might have matured, had his creator lived longer. He would have kept his smooth London image – no James Bond derring-do for him. He would still appreciate good living. And he would undoubtedly still stand for good against evil.

Tey’s elegant, pellucid prose is always a joy to read, although aspects of her books now seem, inevitably, a little dated and mannered, and a modern reader will wince at some of the distinctly un-pc views expressed. Still, she succeeds magnificently in transporting the reader back to her own period, the 1930s and ’40s, a time when all men wore hats when out of doors, when it was possible to drive through London without ever encountering a traffic jam, and when Scotland Yard always got its man.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 71 © Clarissa Burden 2021


About the contributor

Clarissa Burden lives in a small village in Kent. She reviews books, has edited a poetry anthology, and is on the judging panel for the annual Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. This involves exhaustive reading of novels, some good, some bad and lots indifferent.

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