'The Daughter of Time' by Josephine Tey

Detective fiction and historical reality meet

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. Touchstone

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Every now and then a book comes along that changes the way you think. Usually this happens with a powerful novel about social issues, but there are those who have been affected by classic literature or a moving love story.

For me, it happened with an entertaining detective tale about an investigation into the distant past.

Who cares, you might wonder, what really happened to two disinherited princes in the fifteenth century?

 What does it matter who was responsible for their deaths now that everyone involved has been dead and gone for more than 500 years? But truth is important. And how you go about learning the truth can be more important still.

Josephine Tey's intriguing mystery starts with her hero, Inspector Grant, stuck in the hospital with a broken leg. Bored to distraction, he turns to studying faces in historical portraits; and without knowing who he is, he classifies Richard III as a man of conscience and integrity.

Irked that he has misjudged one of the most notorious murderers in history, Grant starts to read everything he can get his hands on about the original "wicked uncle." Yet the more he learns, the more he begins to wonder: Could the history books be wrong? Could Richard be innocent of the murder of his nephews?

With the help of a young researcher, Grant begins to investigate the mystery of the princes' death.

He does so by starting from scratch, disregarding the "rumor" of general sources that merely repeat what others have said, and looking directly at the "evidence" to be found in laws, letters, and account books. When the "testimony" of a witness is presented in the form of a chronicle, he questions the motives of its author and checks the information, as best he can, against what is and is not known as fact.

In short, he conducts his investigation much as he would a modern day criminal case.

The story is fascinating and the characters are likable, but what affected me most about this enjoyable tale is the way the past was presented as a mystery to be solved. History, contrary to popular belief, is not merely a recitation of facts, dates, names and places. It is, in a way, a scientific discipline: a constant effort to understand and learn from the truth -- which, as the proverb goes, is the daughter of time.

Within the confines of the tale, Tey does a fairly decent job of vindicating Richard, though as with all secondary sources and especially fiction, the reader must be careful about accepting the facts at face value. But then, this is exactly what The Daughter of Time taught me, and it is a lesson I happily apply to my own forays into history.

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