Caroline: Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
This is another episode of Queens of Crime at War, a series looking at what the best writers from the golden age of detective fiction did once that period came to an end with the start of the Second World War.
So far in this series, we’ve spent time with writers who mostly saw out the war in London or in the south of England. And while the UK’s capital city does loom large in the literary history of the time, it’s by no means the only place of interest to the curious crime fiction fan. And that’s why today we’re heading north, to a city on the edge of the Scottish Highlands, where one of the most fascinating and elusive writers of the golden age spent the years of World War Two.
She is, of course, Josephine Tey.
I’ve always been fascinated by Josephine Tey because of how few traces there are of her among the general hubbub of the golden age of detective fiction. She wasn’t a member of the Detection Club in the 1930s, so she was never part of that collective of crime writers who met regularly and collaborated on projects like round robin novels and radio broadcasts. She didn’t work as a critic either, so she wasn’t reviewing other writers’ work or in a dialogue with them that way. And perhaps most importantly, she wasn’t often physically in the place where much of the meeting and mingling in British literary society went on. Although Tey is generally acknowledged today to be a Queen of Crime and is frequently mentioned in the same breath as writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, it feels like a grouping that we’ve created with hindsight, rather than one that necessarily existed at the time.
You only have to look at her bibliography to see how she stands apart from these other writers. Josephine Tey was a pseudonym of course, one of two used by Scottish writer Elizabeth or Beth MacIntosh throughout her life, and confusingly there was no clear separation between the Josephine Tey name and her other penname, Gordon Daviot. In 1929 she published her first mystery novel, The Man in the Queue, as Gordon Daviot, and then there was a gap of over a decade before her second whodunnit, A Shilling for Candles, appeared under the name Josephine Tey in 1936. Then her crime writing took another hiatus until 1946, when Miss Pym Disposes was published, after which several more Josephine Tey novels followed in quick succession.
This is a very different publication pattern to someone like Agatha Christie, of course, who published at least a book a year for over fifty years, many of them detective novels, or Dorothy L Sayers, who for the period that she was writing crime fiction was producing it pretty regularly. There are far fewer Josephine Tey detective novels and they popped up sporadically among many other kinds of writing that Beth MacIntosh was doing. Even more intriguingly, many of her most highly regarded mysteries, such as The Daughter of Time and The Franchise Affair, appear in a compressed period straight after the Second World War. It’s as though Josephine Tey was having her own golden age post 1945, and I want to understand why.
So, of course, I decided to ask an expert.
Jennifer: I’m Jennifer Morag Henderson and I’m the author of the biography of Josephine Tey.
Caroline: There’s really nobody better than Jennifer to give us an idea of Josephine Tey’s literary standing at the start of the Second World War, since her biography tells the story not just of Tey as a crime writer, but of Gordon Daviot the playwright and Beth MacIntosh as a person too.
Jennifer: So she’s probably still best known as a playwright. She’s probably still best known as Gordon Daviot. She has published two mysteries by the time of the second world war, but the first one of the mysteries was even published under the name Gordon Daviot. So the name Josephine Tey is kind of out there and there has been a book published and in America that’s the name of the books are coming out under. But probably in Britain, she’s best known for Richard of Bordeaux, her play with John Gielgud.
Caroline: This play, Richard of Bordeaux, had been a massive success for her. It was her first big West End production, and since it also catapulted its star and director John Gielgud into a new echelon of fame, the name of Gordon Daviot became well known in theatrical circles too. But by the end of the 1930s, that name wasn’t riding quite so high.
Jennifer: Richard of Bordeaux is 1933, so there’s, she’s kind of in a difficult position at the start of the war, because she’s had a couple of plays that haven’t been like massive commercial hits. So she’s not, production of plays has halted and production of books has slowed. She’s perhaps not in the best professional position because although she’s a well-known name, she’s not like the most current name in theatre or, or novels.
Caroline: Although there was a Josephine Tey novel in 1936, her first since 1929, the 1930s was a decade dominated by playwriting as Gordon Daviot tried to build on the success of Richard of Bordeaux.
Jennifer: And then she writes a follow-up and the follow-up is quite different and doesn’t really do the same as Richard did. And then the next follow-up Queen of Scots is supposed to be quite like Richard, but again it doesn’t quite. So she she’s, She’s not got a of plays where she’s like, like a hit maker like Dodie Smith.
Caroline: As Jennifer said, the wartime restrictions on theatrical production rather brought this run of years focusing on the theatre to an end, although Tey by no means abandoned her playwriting work. The declaration of war in 1939 found her at home in Scotland, as always dividing her attention between her ties to her family at home and her friends and relations down in London.
Jennifer: She’s in Inverness. So she’s been, she’s been back in Inverness for yeah, a good long time. Almost, almost two decades by that point. She’s, since she’s moved back to Inverness, she’s living with her father who is running his fruit shop. And she keeps house for her father which probably means she’s also involved in the family business possibly to the extent of doing accounts for the fruit shop and things like that.
Caroline: By this time, Josephine Tey had been back in Inverness for nearly 20 years. Born and brought up in this town that is sometimes referred to as “the gateway to the Highlands”, she had left after school to train as a physical education teacher, and then worked at various schools in England after gaining her qualification.
This all changed in the early 1920s, when her mother became ill. Tey moved back home to care for her, and after her mother died in 1923, she stayed permanently to be near her father. This had been a big change to her life plan, but by the time the war began that alteration was far in the past — life in Inverness had a set rhythm to it for her, and there were advantages to not relying entirely on her writing for her living.
Jennifer: I don’t know that for certain, but that’s what I would imagine she would be doing because it was always a family business and she certainly wasn’t involved in the day-to-day running of the fruit shop. Her father had two shop assistants and he went down every everyday, but she did not, she would be in the house and she’d have time to write. From her output after the second world war, she’s definitely she’s writing all the time at this point.
It kind of works for Beth. It does give her the freedom that she needs to write. Because she’s, she’s not on a publishing schedule because she has this family business in the background that she can rely on for money as well. So I think sometimes people do say oh she was stuck in Inverness, but I do think it does work for her in some ways.
Caroline: Alongside her writing, Beth was helping her father’s greengrocer business adjust to the changes that war has brought.
Jennifer: Because of her father’s job obviously rationing comes in, food restrictions as a shopkeeper he’s like dealing with that every single day. I don’t have I’ve got a few letters of Josephine Tey’s from the war years, but I’ve also got, because I’m in contact with her family I’ve got a few letters from her father and throughout the war years, just talking about the family situation and Josephine Tey and also her sisters and a lot of those letters, it’s about the difficulties in the shop, getting foods, customers complaining because they can’t get fresh fruit and vegetables. Like even like the shortages that they’re dealing with. He’s trying to send food down to his youngest daughter in London. So there’s all those kinds of just the practical day-to-day things that were happening for everybody in the second world war.
Caroline: But it’s not just in the shop that there are a lot of changes. Although there’s no active fighting in Scotland during the war and it’s a long way from the frontlines, the war was still a very physical presence in Josephine Tey’s hometown.
Jennifer: So Inverness would have been a very militarized city, well, it was a town at that point, because there are army headquarters here and just the same as in the first world war, there was a massive movement of troops by train. And they would have gathered at the Cameron barracks near Inverness. So that is one of the staging points where everybody comes to and Inverness changes really quite dramatically throughout the war. Everyone who lives in Inverness has to have a pass to get north of the Caledonian canal and because the whole area becomes restricted for the military because there’s a massive naval base just north of Inverness and they control, they control who’s going in and who’s out.
They want to know who everyone is. They want to make sure there’s no aliens in the area. And it’s, it’s restrictive for daily life in Inverness because the Caledonian canal, like it’s just, it’s 10 minutes walk from my house. I live in the centre of Inverness. So it’s not a theoretical thing. You’re carrying a pass with you all the time.
There are soldiers all around you in town. As the war progresses, there’s a big American military base in Inverness as well. So it’s, it’s, it’s like, there’s a lot happening. It’s a major military centre. So she would have been extremely aware of the war right from the beginning.
Caroline: One other major restriction that the advent of war placed on Josephine Tey’s life was the need to stay at home — trips to London to see friends and colleagues in the theatre, or to visit her sister who lived there, became few and far between.
Jennifer: Definitely travel would have been much harder. She was used to taking holidays to see her friends in London and her family down in London. And that would have been much harder. I’m there, I’ve got a couple of letters actually, which are really interesting. She was actually down in London very near the start of the outbreak of the second world war. And she describes how she’s kind of walking through empty streets and everybody knows something’s about to happen and there’s this kind of atmosphere.
Caroline: But for a writer, as they way, everything is copy. Although unlike some of the other writers I’ve covered in this series so far, Tey doesn’t start writing mysteries set in the Blitz. The tension of wartime Britain inspires her to write about another uncertain time in these islands’ history.
Jennifer: But what I find absolutely fascinating is that this then inspires a play, Valerius, which is about Roman soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall thinking about the invasion of the barbarians.
You can really watch her the way she thinks and gets inspiration as a writer. She starts with one thing and then she starts firing off in all these other different directions, thinking about different things. And it’s the atmosphere. It’s how people feel. That’s what she’s trying to capture.
Caroline: After the break: Josephine Tey’s golden age.
The Second World War didn’t prompt Josephine Tey to start writing mysteries that were explicitly about wartime conditions, but she did keep writing throughout those years.
Jennifer: She kind of almost uses it to explore different things. So at the beginning of the war, she’s had novels published, she’s had a biography published, plays, but she’s not kind of in this sort of commercial fiction publish one book a year, the publisher is waiting for you. So what she does is I think she kind of starts exploring different ideas and different forms.
And she goes back to short stories, which I find quite interesting. That’s where she started her writing. And there was a, There was a real demand for short stories because people were sitting in the evening, wanting something to read and sitting in their house with the curtains drawn and a, so she publishes a short story for the first time in years, right at the beginning of the second world war.
Caroline: As Gordon Daviot, she had begun publishing short fiction in newspapers and magazines when she was very young — that was how she had got her start in writing. Now, with a renewed demand for short form, easy to consume literature, she felt inspired to return to those roots. “Short” was a common request from editors of all kinds at this time, and it seems to be a demand that suited Tey well.
Jennifer: And then she kind of continues to explore the short form by writing short plays. Several of which are a broadcast on BBC radio. And again, that’s the thing that there was a demand for, at that time quality entertainment and that could kind of take people out of their, their situation.
Caroline: But it wasn’t just in form that her work was changing.
Jennifer: And the other thing is her style kind of evolves a little bit. She starts sort of at the beginning of the war she’s quite interested in quite serious things. And then she starts writing these quite light things as well. Kind of almost comedies, like entertainment, like little short, funny plays. I think. I think that’s maybe a reaction to realising people do need entertainment and just kind of this let’s get on with it and I mean, there’s, there can be quite serious themes underneath the comedy, but yeah, they’re definitely exploring something lighter.
Caroline: As the war nears its end, the demand for Tey’s writing begins to pick up again.
Jennifer: So it starts with plays, there was a play that she’d written right at the beginning of the second world war, and then it doesn’t get put on until afterwards because you can’t. And also Valerius, this play she writes in response to the feeling that she had at the beginning of the war. It’s got practically an all male cast and she felt that it almost shouldn’t be put on until men were back from fighting. Otherwise the people that were in it would be people who had chosen not to fight. And obviously theatres are closed and restricted. The first thing that happens after the second world war is this explosion in her playwriting getting published.
Caroline: And then she begins to diversify into other genres, producing fiction at a rapid rate unlike anything she’s done before.
Jennifer: But then she’s obviously also decided that she, she needs another outlet. So she starts writing what becomes the Josephine Tey crime novels starting with Miss Pym Disposes.
Caroline: This sudden flowering of mystery writing from Miss Pym Disposes onwards is what I think represents Josephine Tey’s own golden age. And to explain it fully, I need to take you back to her bibliography again. Remember, we’ve had two mysteries from her before the Second World War — The Man in the Queue in 1929 and A Shilling for Candles in 1936. And then after 1945, there is, by Tey’s standards, a sudden deluge of crime fiction. Miss Pym Disposes comes out in 1946, then The Franchise Affair in 1948, Brat Farrar in 1949, To Love and Be Wise in 1950, and The Daughter of Time in 1951. Josephine Tey is suddenly writing a mystery a year, almost. What caused this switch in her habits? Partly, Jennifer says, it just reflects her own changing tastes.
Jennifer: I think it’s partly what she’s interested in. She didn’t, she didn’t write to commission. She wasn’t on a schedule. She wasn’t on a publishing schedule. She wrote what she wanted to write.
Caroline: Again, this is where Tey’s life in Inverness and her involvement in her father’s business are relevant — since she was free from the requirement to support herself and her family entirely from writing, she could follow her own enthusiasms in a way that perhaps some of the other crime writers at this time weren’t able to do. We see evidence of this in that first post war novel, Miss Pym Disposes, Jennifer says, which is generally marketed today as a mystery but is really a very hard book to classify.
Jennifer: In the Penguin archive, when Miss Pym Disposes is published there’s letters and they have this discussion about whether or not it’s actually a crime novel. Should it be published under the crime novel imprint? Like should it be an orange or a green Penguin?. And if you think about that, when you’re reading it, if it wasn’t, if it wasn’t marketed as a crime novel would you actually think that it was one because the crime doesn’t happen until quite late on in the book. It’s all kind of this atmosphere and how people are feeling.
Caroline: We actually read Miss Pym Disposes very recently in the Shedunnit Book Club, and I can confirm that the debate over whether it’s really a crime novel or not is still very much alive today. But regardless of its exact genre classification, this book and the others that Tey was publishing in the years immediately following the war were popular, and she began to get offers to do more. Rather than become formulaic or repetitive, though, she simply takes the ideas she has and fits them into the recognisable structures of the detective novel.
Jennifer: And I think maybe the, the success of the first one then leads to people saying, well, can you write another crime novel? So when someone is asking her to do something, she’s she takes what she’s interested in and puts it in this format. And there’s this, the quote that she says that crime writing is like writing a sonnet. Like it’s a structure and you put something into the structure.
Caroline: And I think that’s what she does so well is she takes what she’s interested in. She’s writing absolutely what she wants, but then she’s got this structure to hang it on. And you see that with The Daughter of Time. I mean, you could, how could you pitch that? How could you pitch it as a book? Let alone as a crime novel, but she manages to do it, it’s fantastic.
Suddenly, Josephine Tey is a hot property in publishing.
Jennifer: It is the time in her life when a publisher is saying, have you got another book like this for next year. People want the next Josephine Tey. And they’re getting fantastic reviews both in the UK and the US. So yeah, it must’ve, it must’ve improved her reputation and expanded her readership and just made her feel that there was a demand for what she was doing.
Caroline: Whereas before the war, Beth MacIntosh was probably best known as the playwright Gordon Daviot, as the 1940s draw to a close she is now first and foremost Josephine Tey.
Jennifer: Yeah, she, she is known as Josephine Tey. I mean, those are the books that have survived, those are the ones that people are reading and talking about.
Caroline: Meanwhile, things aren’t going quite so well in Tey’s personal life.
Jennifer: So one of the very first things that happens is her brother-in-law is killed. And that’s obviously quite a big thing for the family. So one of her sisters is left widowed. Her younger sister marries during the war. So again, that’s a big change for the whole family and she marries down in London, which means she doesn’t move back to Inverness, which means Beth is left again with her father in Inverness to care for him.
Caroline: And Colin, her father, he does start to have problems with his health during the war which are just becoming more and more noticeable. So that is becoming like quite a big part of Beth’s life, of Josephine Tey’s life that she’s, she’s looking after him.
Colin MacIntosh finally passes away in 1950. For a while afterwards, Tey is able to do some of the things that the war and then her caring responsibilities have postponed: travelling to see friends and family, going on holiday, seeing her own plays performed.
Jennifer: There’s loads of stuff to deal with when someone dies, selling the family business. So she, she just thinks that she’s exhausted from doing all of this.
And she finally goes down to see her youngest sister and her new nephew in London. And her sister says, this is not just normal exhaustion. You need to go and see my doctor. And that’s when Josephine Tey finds out that she has cancer.
Caroline: Josephine Tey’s golden age was sadly, very shortlived.
Jennifer: And from that moment, the very end of her life, she has to stay with her younger sister in London and she dies in London and it’s really very sad. She’s not got time. She could have done more if she had time.
Caroline: Josephine Tey died of liver cancer in February 1952, having never really recovered from the exhaustion she felt while caring for her father. In her papers after her death, the manuscript for one last crime novel was found — The Singing Sands — which sees her detective, Alan Grant, take the trip back to Scotland that she would never manage herself. It was published posthumously later that same year.
Although Jennifer’s biography of Josephine Tey has been out for a few years now, she is still following up leads and discovering fascinating new details about this extraordinary writer’s all too brief life. And last year, she made a major new discovery. She found some letters between Josephine Tey and Dorothy L Sayers, which confirm that Tey was invited to join the Detection Club after all.
Jennifer: And then the last letters, these new letters that I just kind of read through between her and Dorothy L Sayers where Tey is invited to join the Detection Club.
And she says, I’d love to join it, but I’ve got to just finish just a couple more things. There’s something happening in my, if she only she’s had more time, I think that she could have, I think she would have ended up as a different writer and a different person, she could have taken advantage of talking with other crime writers and joining the Detection Club.
And maybe that would have taken her work somewhere new, she was getting offers from America all the time. She would have maybe liked to travel. I find it very sad what happens at the very end.
Caroline: I think it’s always been assumed by fans and scholars that Tey was never invited to join the elite society in British crime writing because she was rarely in London and she didn’t publish very many detective novels during the interwar period when the whodunnit was at the height of its popularity. But here is evidence that Tey’s extraordinary late run of mysteries immediately after WW2 did catch the eye of co founder Dorothy L Sayers, and that had Tey not already been so ill, she might have forged new friendships and connections at this point in her career.
Jennifer: It was kind of a lockdown project for me to kind of get copies of these and it was so, I mean, it’s always exciting. It’s very rare now that I see anything new with Josephine Tey, but to see just a couple of letters from her and she’s got such a distinctive turn of phrase and it’s so nice just to read it. Quite poignant as well, because the letters are kind of talking about towards the end of her life when she’s ill, it’s not, it’s not such a happy time, but yeah, it was, it was wonderful. Just hearing her voice one more time.
Caroline: Although this is an exciting discovery, and full credit must go to Jennifer for her loyal and dogged pursuit of these documents, there is something bittersweet about these last letters. Josephine Tey’s golden age was cut short by her illness in the early 1950s. Who knows what else she could have gone on to write?
This episode was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find details about all the books I mentioned in the description for this episode or at shedunnitshow.com/queensofcrimeatwar. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
If you’d like to help me get to this year’s pledge drive goal of 100 new members of the Shedunnit Book Club, head to shedunnitshow.com/pledgedrive. We’re well over two thirds of the way there now, so if you’d like to take advantage of that buy one, get a free one to give offer, you better hurry.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Original music by Martin Zaltz Austwick. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening. The next episode in the Queens of Crime at War series will be out in a week’s time.