Monday, October 28, 2013

Review: Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

When I don't know, I turn to Wikipedia: 
In 2012, Peter Hitchens wrote that The Daughter of Time was "one of the most important books ever written."
On its publication Anthony Boucher called the book "one of the permanent classics in the detective field.... one of the best, not of the year, but of all time."
Dorothy B. Hughes also praised it, saying it is "not only one of the most important mysteries of the year, but of all years of mystery".
This book was voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list by the UK Crime Writers' Association in 1990.
But why?

I am not a mystery reader, but The Daughter of Time came up in my book club, so I read it.

Most mysteries fall in one of two camps: the transparent mystery, where we know the guilty party by the end of the third chapter and merely mark time until the hero figures it out; or the deus ex machina mystery, where the hero has deduced some vital clue that is withheld from the readers until after the final confrontation (you could also call this The Sherlock).

Daughter of Time is neither of these. Our hero is bedridden, convalescing after being injured while capturing the last baddie. Stuck in his bed, Daughter... breaks one of the cardinals rules of story-telling: almost none of the action happens in front of us. Instead, characters enter the hospital room, tell the hero what's happened and then leave to have more adventures while hero stays home.

In this way, Daughter... has elements of psychological thriller and melodrama. I was far more interested in how the hero handled his incapacitation than I was in the mystery that he was engaged in.

Maybe we live too much in the reality tv era. CSI and Law & Order regularly take their fictional characters into contact with "real world" cases. But I'm sure this must have been a novel approach for a novel in 1951.

Is that what made reviewers hail Daughter... as an instant classic? Or is there something else I'm missing?

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