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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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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