14 de desembre de 2015

Book review: A passionate biography of Josephine Tey, an extraordinary crime writer from the Highlands

[The National, 14 december 2015]

Harry McGrath


IN 1990 the Crime Writers Association voted Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time the best crime novel ever written. In it her iconic creation, Detective Alan Grant, rethinks the reputation of King Richard III, anticipating the debate that ensued when the last Plantagenet’s remains were discovered in a Leicester car park 60 years later.
Josephine Tey was a pseudonym for Inverness native Elizabeth MacKintosh. She also wrote as Gordon Daviot and, thanks to Jennifer Morag Henderson’s assiduity, we now know she used a third pseudonym, F. Craigie Howe, when she submitted a script to Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre in 1945. As Daviot, she wrote the play Richard of Bordeaux which launched the career of Sir John Gielgud and her success as a playwright meant that she counted Laurence Olivier and Gwen Ffrangcon Davies among her friends. Tey is sometimes seen as the fifth member of the golden age of crime writing along with Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham. Ian Rankin cites her as an inspiration.
And yet Henderson’s Josephine Tey: A Life is the first comprehensive biography of this remarkable woman. Henderson’s pursuit of her mysterious and neglected subject has a foreword by another great Scottish exponent of crime fiction, Val McDermid. McDermid describes Tey as “a woman who characterized the detective novel as ‘a medium as disciplined as any sonnet’... She was a straight woman whose strongest friendships were with a group of lesbians that included actresses, actors and directors. She was a proud Highlander who left the bulk of her estate to the National Trust in England at a time when most of the Scottish literary establishment espoused Scottish nationalism. Yet somehow as a writer she was enriched by these contradictions, creating characters in her fiction who struggled constantly with the idea of identity.”
Henderson begins the Elizabeth MacKintosh story with her birth in Inverness in 1896. The eldest of three daughters, her father Colin was a Gaelic speaker from Applecross who migrated to Inverness and established himself as a fruiterer. Mother Josephine was a pupil-teacher before she married. There was no tradition of writing in the family but there was respect for education, “particularly reading and literature”. Raised and schooled in Inverness, MacKintosh eventually decamped for Anstey Physical Training College in Birmingham where she trained as a PE teacher. Her mother’s untimely death in 1923 saw Tey return north to care for her father though every year she would hire a temporary housekeeper and sojourn to London where she was feted by publishers and enjoyed the company of theatre glitterati.
Henderson is an Invernessian herself and she seems to take MacKintosh’s neglect personally. Leaving nothing unexplored in her quest to shed new light on her subject, she investigates archives from the Highlands to the South of England; forensically examines the Tey/Daviot oeuvre; combs the alleys and byways of Inverness for traces of the MacKintosh family; and even recreates a walk Colin MacKintosh did as a child between the family croft at Shieldaig and the train station at Lochcarron.
In the age of Google-aided, instant biography it’s a pleasure to read one that is the product of time, care and passion. Henderson is as good on the mystery of MacKintosh’s “lost love” as she is on the social history of Inverness and the denizens of London’s theatre world. Supporting characters are fleshed out in unexpected, democratic ways. High school headmasters and college teachers receive as much attention as MacKintosh’s actor friends. Henderson sometimes combines the role of biographer with that of defence attorney, springing to MacKintosh’s defence where she feels she has been stereotyped; a service she extends, incidentally, to father Colin when he is accused of being “overly-strict” or calumniated by an obituarist in the Inverness Courier.
Josephine MacKintosh died 18 months after her father when, unburdened from the obligation of care and at the height of her literary powers, she might have expected a new lease of life. Towards the end of the book Henderson points out the inadequacies of previous attempts to write about MacKintosh but fails to fully explain the reasons behind her subject’s earlier neglect. There appears to have been several factors operating at once, including MacKintosh’s retiring personality and the amount of time she was obliged to spend in Inverness. One issue that Henderson returns to repeatedly is that MacKintosh’s gender, genre and Anglophilia combined to distance her from the wider Scottish Literary Renaissance which was dominated by male Scottish Nationalists which, in Inverness, gathered around Neil Gunn.
Anyway, the issue of neglect is a lot less pressing than it was thanks to this exhaustive account of an extraordinary Highland writer.
Josephine Tey: A Life by Jennifer Morag Henderson (Sandstone, £19.99)



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