My rating: 8/10.
Who is the unusual young man who catches Inspector Grant’s attention during a brief encounter at a literary cocktail party? Slender and soft-spoken, rather negligible but for his white-blond fairness, Leslie Searle professes to be a professional American photographer on a private trip to England.
Why has Searle insinuated himself into best-selling author Lavina Fitch’s household, focussing his charm on Lavinia’s niece Liz Garroway, and partnering up with Liz’s fiance Water Whitmore, the well-known radio broadcaster, on a suddenly conceived book project?
And why is Mrs. Garroway, Liz’s super-maternal stepmother, so immediately hostile to the personable and perfectly well-mannered Mr. Searle, and why does the local vicar murmur about other-worldly demons after making Mr. Searle’s acquaintance over a placid dinner?
Walter and Leslie head off on their spontaneously planned canoe trip down the twisting Rushmere River, which they are co-documenting in words and photographs, and all seems well until the night when Walter storms out of the pub where he’s been sitting with Leslie. Laughing off Walter’s departure, Leslie is in no hurry to follow, and when he does leave, he placidly walks down the street and out of the village on his way back to the riverside camping spot. And then he disappears into the night. Leslie Searle is never seen again…
What really happened that night, and what dark secrets are hiding behind the many blank, superficially cooperative faces of so many respectable people? Nothing is as it seems, and Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard has his work cut out in attempting to unravel the mysteries surrounding what may just be an exceedingly well-planned murder.
A most satisfactory vintage mystery story, with a traditionally English countryside setting – though what is it with these (purely fictional, I’m always hoping) sedate British villages and their exceedingly high rates of murder and other such mayhem?! With its nicely detailed character development, and reasonably believable plot twists, Tey’s novel still stands up well more than a half-century after publication, and will provide an evening or two of diverting reading to the modern connoisseur of the genre. If you have not yet discovered Josephine Tey, I recommend her to you with admiration and enthusiasm.
I frequently find it a lot harder to sensibly talk about why I like a book, especially one I’ve read and re-read numerous times with pure enjoyment, than to pan something I’ve reacted to unfavourably and have no intention of ever reading again, as I did in my last review, of Mary Wesley’s The Chamomile Lawn. So though I’ve spent some time mulling over how best to analyze the appeal of this author, I will merely say that something about her writing just “clicks” in a deeply satisfying way.
If I can compare Josephine Tey to anyone, it would be Ngaio Marsh at her very best, hybridized with the intellectual superiority of D.L. Sayers. This writer treats her readers as full equals, never for a moment talking down to us, and always assuming we are well able to catch all of the nuances of the characters, settings and plots she has created and presented for our enjoyment.
And Tey has a deliciously sly sense of humour as well, which shows that the author had a very keen observational eye on the society and personalities of her time, much as she seems to have been personally rather reclusive in nature. She did move in some interesting circles – the theatre, literary and upper-class society worlds of her time – though she quite cleverly evaded the attentions of the press once her work became widely popular.
I do admire and enjoy Josephine Tey’s clean, intelligent style, especially in her later books, and I deeply regret that her body of work is so slight. There exist only eight mystery novels, of which To Love and Be Wise is the sixth, as well as several “straight” novels, and a number of stage and radio plays.
“Josephine Tey” is a pseudonym, that of Scottish writer Elizabeth Mackintosh. She also published under the pen name “Gordon Daviot” – several of the novels and the dramatic works originally appeared under this name. This accomplished writer died tragically, much too young, of cancer at the age of fifty-six in 1952. For more information on this famously reclusive writer, check out this dedicated website: Josephine Tey.net
It’s been a few years since I’ve read this particular mystery novel, To Love and Be Wise, but now that I have indulged myself by escaping into her fictional world, and renewing my acquaintance with the most likeable Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard, key investigator in five of the mysteries, I am eyeing the rest of the Teys sitting here on the “special books” shelf with anticipation. Time perhaps for yet another single-author reading jag, now that I’ve gleefully polished off most of the D.E. Stevensons I was saving for a treat for myself during this most hectic time of the year.
I believe that Josephine Tey’s mysteries are being currently reprinted in handsome modern editions, but even if you are unable to find new volumes, her most popular titles are in wide abundance in the secondhand book world.
Edited to add this link to an exceedingly excellent review which I’ve stumbled upon in marvelous serendipity while looking for info on the story around the publishing of Tey’s very first mystery, The Man in the Queue. I beg of you, if you’re interested in Tey, please click over here: A Gold of Fish – To Love and Be Wise
I wish I could write reviews like this. Thank you, Stewartry ! I anticipate much happy reading as I further explore your EXCELLENT blog!