The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

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?

Oh dear…

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.


  1. Puzzle Doctor – Thanks for your honest appraisal of this one. I admit I like this one better than you did primarily because I like the characters and I do like the weaving together of past and present. And you really are right about the appeal of the historical aspect of the investigation.


    • Don’t get me wrong, I did really like it as a book – but as a straight mystery, which, to be fair, it never tries to be, it’s necessarily lacking. Which isn’t a bad thing in this case.


  2. Julian Symons liked Tey but thought the book overrated and was fairly surprised that so many readers even at the time thought that Tey/Mackintosh’s theory was thought of as being new. It has remained incredibly popular hasn’t it? So go on, tell us more about the Dexter – I thought it was pretty good (even if the finding of physical evidence so lte in the day more than strains credulity)


  3. I have never read any books by this author, but if it is considered the best crime novel ever, I think I should read it. And I don’t know much about that time, so it could be a good way of learning History.


  4. It’s appeal is that it is an historical mystery, and the first time reader, generally speaking, gets the feeling that an argument has been made to reverse a verdict of history and make right an ancient wrong. Subsequent research reveals that this argument does not hold up to peer review, and the argument presented in the novel is indeed smashed by the weight of real historical evidence.

    But it is just a mystery novel after all, some alternative universe illusion.

    It reminds me of the bit of the psychobiography of Shakespeare that James Joyce included in the text of ULYSSES, with Shakespeare killing Richard III in lieu of his brother, Richard, vicariously, for bedding his own true love. Heresay evidence in fiction is the worst kind of evidence, and we know this even while,. for a brief time, we accept the argument drawn with so many names and motives that coincidentally ring true, the synchronicity of it all.

    I recall first reading THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, and immediately seeking out reviews by critics with historical knowledge of the era. After that, I read THE MAUL AND THE PEAR TREE, which was a bit more careful regarding historical details and a very good read. My next book was MAN’S STORM, which followed a watchman solving a murder in the midst of the historical great storm that hit England long ago, with some nice historical detail.

    I’ve read some interesting books purporting to solve the real life mysteries of Jack the Ripper and the Lizzie Borden family murder–always seeming to make the evidence air-tight one way or the other. But there are always critics, perhaps with their own agendas, who pick these histories apart, and in the end you wind up blinking and yawning like you do when confronted with the daily news.

    The form of the THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, with the detective solving the mystery from his bed, is also a rarity in mystery fiction, or at least it was when this novel was written. It has since inspired others.


  5. I’ve begun this book twice, once as a GCSE History student, once as a grown-up mystery fan, and failed to finish it twice. Fortunately it didn’t put me off either Tey or history. It did put me off reading The Wench is Dead, though.

    I don’t think the use of a modern-day investigator adds anything to the narrative – Grant just gets in the way of the history. And then on top of that, for even less immediacy, in The Daughter of Time, Grant is working at arms-length from the investigation itself. Tey’s more straight-forward takes on past crimes in Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair were much more readable.


  6. I read this about 15 years ago when it was recommended by my mother-in-law. I enjoyed it a lot but I wonder how I would feel about it now as I have read so much more of the classics. It was interesting to read your criticisms as much as your praise.


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