Thursday, 25 June 2015

I Just Read a Fantastic Book!

I've mentioned before that I am a big crime fiction fan.
Well, the latest I read didn't disappoint. And yet, although it does include many murders, and a character assassination, it is otherwise quite unlike most crime fiction.

The Daughter of Time - Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey has her detective study Richard III (the book was published in the early 1950s) and determine whether he is likely to have been such a villain.

The book is not very amiable with historians (which is a good thing) but I think the best thing about it is that it starts from the outlandish premise that people of the past were not two-dimensional caricatures, but people. With understandable or guess-able motives. Crazy.

Which is something I may have mentioned once. Or twice. Or maybe every time I get the chance.

I also like her attitude to physiognomy. Mid-way through the book, as her case was getting more and more compelling (the story is also gripping, worry not), I had to check what acknowledged historians have to say about her theses. And they mostly dismissed it on the ground that she has her detective study Richard III's face and make guesses accordingly (and also that the rumors were more widespread than she says). 

Except no conclusion is ever drawn from physiognomy; other than the original bewilderment, the detective simply does what anybody does: get impressions from a face, and then see if facts match impressions. 

I find this attitude quite refreshing, because I think it is much more useful to demonstrate a healthy use of physiognomy than to disavow altogether something we all do automatically, and condemn it wholesale because, prejudices.

Anyway, this is a point of detail.

Go forth and read the book.

Three warnings though: 

1. Tey's mistrust of popular narratives of history should be checked with a healthy dose of Chesterton (like all things in life). Chesterton used to say that legends, oral traditions and myths are often a "democratic history" which can inform us much (although not necessarily about precise dates and actors), and so not to be discounted and I agree with him. Which does not mean we should take them at face value. Or that history from school-books is the same thing.

Believe me, I have studied enough of them, history school-books are about the political ideas accepted at the time they are written, and that's about it.

Ok, there are a few exceptions. (Remind me to do a review of Gombrich. I'll try not to make it "I love Gombrich" written 300 times).

But not many!

2. I loved this book, but I am yet to find a single "debunking" book I did not want to murder (book-murder is totally a thing, it's in Jonathan Strange). 
You know the ones I mean: "10 Truths About History You Would Never Have Guessed" or "What They Didn't Tell You In History Lessons". Invariably, they re-hash things which are quite common knowledge if you dig even a teensy bit, or things that have no foundation in fact whatever. 

3. I "read" it via audiobook. The narrator was Derek Jacobi, and he was mostly great, but his pretend American accent (for the American researcher) was unbearable - to me, who has no ear for accents - (and his Gloucestershire accent was pretty dreadful too). So maybe avoid that if you're American.

But do read it!


  1. Big fan of Tey! Discovered her last year. Brat Farrer is great xx

    1. I always knew you had excellent taste in books :-)