Detective Inspector Alan Grant is confined to a hospital bed and is bored. The only thing that intrigues him is a portrait of Richard III, the King of England made infamous by allegedly murdering the princes in the Tower of London. Grant is convinced that the portrait is not one of a murderer, and recruits some helpers to investigate Richard’s guilt. But can a 500 year old murder be solved? And, if not Richard, can the real villain be identified?
New Author August continues, and it’s time to tackle an author that I ought to have read by now. In fact, this book is considered to be a classic – the Crime Writers Association voted it the best crime novel ever. The Crime Writers Association. Best Crime Novel Ever. I can’t possibly disagree with such an erudite body of experts. Can I?
First of all, it’s a fascinating read. The modern day characters, seen from Grant’s POV, are an interesting bunch, and Tey does a good job of making even the incidental characters, such as the nurses, into real people, and the historical investigation is absolutely fascinating. As someone who is getting more and more interested in pre-Tudor English history (thanks to Paul Doherty), this presents some more information about a time that I knew little about. How Tey weaves her argument (if it is hers – there is an interesting point raised late in the day that this is not a new argument) around the various sources is intriguing and clever and as a book, I recommend it.
So what’s the problem?
Well, two problems really. First, and this is constrained by the nature of the story, if Richard is innocent, the guilty party is fairly obvious and the story cannot go any further than to point a vague finger in their general direction. There is a balance between the realism of an historical investigation and the fiction of a detective novel (The Wench Is Dead, anyone?) and Tey has wisely gone for the realistic point of view. Which makes the novel stronger, but, as a mystery story, it gives a weaker solution.
Secondly, everything is inspired by the expression of the face of a painting of Richard – but medieval paintings aren’t pictures of fact but are rather painted to represent the king. They’re not the equivalent of photographs and no painter is going to give a king a guilty expression. Sorry, found that a bit annoying.
So overall, it’s a great read that I would heartily recommend to anyone who is interested in history. But only a cautious recommendation as an out-and-out mystery.