Wednesday, December 9, 2015

High on my favorites list for this year -- Josephine Tey: A Life, by Jennifer Morag Henderson

Sandstone Press, 2015
426 pp


Sterling, superb, and all manner of superlatives -- this book is a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in Josephine Tey.  She is one of my all-time favorite mystery novelists, but her career and her life go well beyond just that of a few books.

As writer Val McDermid notes about Tey in her introduction to this book,
"Biographical information has always been scant, mostly because that's the way this most private of authors wanted it. The brief details on her book jackets reveal that Tey was born Elizabeth MacKintosh and that she also enjoyed success under another pseudonym -- Gordon Daviot, author of the West End hit Richard of Bordeaux, the springboard that launched John Gielgud to stardom.
Sometimes they mention that she was a native of Inverness who lived most of her life there. But until now, Josephine Tey was herself the greatest mystery at the heart of her fiction." (xviii)
Well, that's all changed now with the publication of Jennifer Morag Henderson's  Josephine Tey: A Life.  Henderson has done an invaluable service to Tey fans everywhere through her meticulous research:  as McDermid reveals, Henderson has been through Tey's family papers, as well as material that's never been published before to produce this simply amazing biography that
"gives us the chance to understand what shaped Beth MacKintosh into the writer she became." (xix)
 As the author explains, the book "aims to present the story of Beth's life -- of her many different lives.." and to set her "full body of work" in terms of Tey's life and within "the context of the literary canon."   It seems to me that Ms. Henderson has deftly and most thoroughly accomplished what she set out to do here. Tey was not just an amazing novelist (as most readers of her work like myself consider her), but a well-established, well-respected playwright whose performances featured such actors as John Gielgud, a screenwriter (which I did not know), a devoted daughter who helped take care of the family business and then her father and their home when he became very ill, and through it all, she continuously shunned the limelight, preferring her private life over her public one. The book is structured into three parts:

  1. 1896-1923: Elizabeth MacKintosh
  2. 1924-1945: Gordon Daviot
  3. 1946-1952: Josephine Tey

although as you read it, you come to realize that these divisions are not so cut-and-dried or as rigid  as they look here.  In fact,  there's so much here about this woman's life that frankly, if you're a Tey reader, you will not want to miss a single word.

I'll leave the serious discussions about specific content, etc., to those far more wiser than myself who are skilled in analysis or to those who know much more about Tey than I ever will. Speaking from the vantage point of an avid Tey fan,  sometime after I'd read this book I reread her A Shilling For Candles, and I wrote the following about the experience on the crime page of this online reading journal:
"Having just recently finished Jennifer Morag Henderson's excellent biography of the author,  Josephine Tey: A Life ...  I find myself completely in agreement with her -- the more a Tey reader understands about her life, the easier it is to appreciate  and to understand her work.  I wish the biography had come out sooner; now I feel like I ought to go back and reread more of Tey's crime novels for better perspective."
I genuinely mean what I wrote there -- once I'd read this biography, it really opened my eyes as to just how much of MacKintosh, Daviot, and Tey went into her books.  Josephine Tey: A Life should be a must-read, cannot-miss part of any serious Tey reader's library; it's a book Tey fans will come back to over and over again.  It's a flat-out stunner of a biography, and Ms. Henderson deserves all of the praise that I'm sure will be coming her way because of it.

Thank you once again to Keara at Sandstone for the heads-up.  I absolutely loved this book, and very, very highly recommend it.