Welcome back to the Literary Helpdesk where we dole out the panacea of prose, the nutritional supplement of narrative, and the restorative concoction of rhyming couplets.
This week’s prescription is a salve and gentle sedative for those left dizzy, irate or bewildered by the whirlwind of current events and revised (even revisionist) history racing across the headlines: Josephine Tey’s detective story The Daughter of Time. (UK purchase available here, but whichever side of the Pond you are on, do visit your local independent bookshop, if it has reopened, instead of using the link!)
Inasmuch as few of us can read two things simultaneously, any novel will do if you have news-fatigue, but this is not just any novel. I am as reliably informed as one can be after nothing more than a quick web search that The Daughter of Time has been voted the best crime novel of all time by the British Crime Writers’ Association, and came fourth in a list of the top 100 mystery novels of all time compiled by the Mystery Writers of America. So, it has pedigree and staying power, having been published just before Tey’s death in 1951. This exalted place amongst mystery novels is all the more remarkable as the protagonist, Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant, spends the entire novel laid up in a hospital bed with a badly broken leg and the crime he is investigating is more than half a millennium old. In fact, the gripping plot–truly, it is gripping!–is essentially the dramatisation of graduate research in history. It is, as I said, not just any novel.
It all begins with a picture gifted to Grant by his glamorous actress friend, Marta Hallard. Grant has a fascination with faces, and Marta suggests a face with a mystery behind it might keep his mind turning over whilst his body is confined to bed. Of all the faces in the collection there is one that draws his attention: a late medieval portrait of a man with an interesting and complex look about his expression, the suggestion of sadness and suffering, of the weight of responsibility. To Grant’s enormous surprise, the face belongs to Richard III, the notorious hunchbacked murderer, one of the bogey men of schoolbook history and undisputed worst-ever king of England. It was Richard III, as everyone knows, who usurped the throne after his brother’s, Edward IV’s, untimely death, imprisoned his young nephews in the Tower of London, had them murdered to reign secure, and then died at the Battle of Bosworth crying “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
With the help of a young American researcher, Brent Carradine, Grant is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery of Richard III. He cannot reconcile the villainy to the care-worn face, but surely such broad historical consensus cannot be mistaken, especially when it comes from so sound a source as the sainted Sir Thomas More? Or can it? Between them Grant and Carradine amass quite a collection of events whose facts are widely and knowingly remembered completely differently than they happened, from the Tonypandy Riots in South Wales (“Tonypandy” becomes Grant’s shorthand for historical claptrap) to the Boston Massacre.
The rehabilitation of Richard III that Grant and Carradine attempt is thoroughly grounded in both history and psychology. It is not just a question of the facts that can be established from contemporary sources (What did Richard actually do when he heard of his brother’s death? Did St Thomas More actually write the eyewitness account attributed to him, which concerned events that occurred when he was five years old…?), but also a question of what makes sense when we recall that history is about people. Who benefited from the death of the Princes in the tower? Did it shore up Richard’s claims?
As Grant picks through the question of motive and benefit, he also works the problem from the other end: aftermath. What was Richard’s relationship with his nieces and their mother? It appears to have been cordial to the end. What mother, Grant wonders, would accept a generous pension from the man who murdered her sons, and allow her daughters to dance at his parties? The more Grant and Carradine unravel the evidence, the more it appears that the fact that everyone knows to be true–that Richard III murdered his nephews–does not fit the events that can be established with certainty, does not make sense politically, and flies in the face of psychology.
Presented as an alliance between forensic police inquiry and academic investigation, the story is an object lesson in the patience and care necessary to form a true understanding of persons and events. It shines with the craft of the investigative journalist.
“Fake News,” it is widely reported, plagues the media today; The Daughter of Time just shows us this is nothing new. Social media fact checkers are the order of the day, and already many are crying foul of their pronouncements and fact-checking the fact-checkers. Underneath all of this checking and rechecking is an even more sinister “advancement” in technology: the deep fake. Virtually uncheckable, deep fakes are manufactured photographic or live-video quality images that can put any words in anyone’s mouth and show you footage of them saying them as proof. They can put famous faces in pornographic videos, manufacture people and events that never existed, and show you crimes that never happened. Experts in video analysis warn that as the facts get more sophisticated it is becoming much more difficult to spot the manipulation, even under forensic investigation. The question of what to accept as truth has become a lot more complex.
This is where the wisdom of Alan Grant and Brent Carradine comes in. No, we can’t scrupulously fact check every claim in the media, but we can use some basic questions to sift the glut of data a pacey 24-hour news cycle sends our way: Who does this story benefit?; Does this fit other established facts?; Who said it first?; Where did this information come from?; and, perhaps most importantly, Does this story present a credible and consistent picture of human behavior? Nothing queer as folk, that’s for sure, but if a news story imputes a general, motiveless or self-destructive malice to one of the key players, or requires you to believe something deeply improbable–like that a mother in all other ways conscientious and loving could maintain a friendly relationship with a man she knew murdered her sons–it’s fair to ask questions, to reserve judgement.
Digital news is a whirlwind and designed for quick digestion before the next serving. We are encouraged by the more sensational outlets to lurch from outrage to outrage without much consideration, so to form true beliefs and right understanding must be a conscientious exercise. It means pressing pause and taking time to consider what is on offer before deciding to imbibe. It means becoming uncomfortable with uncritical acceptance, and comfortable with waiting for certainty. It means developing patience because all of this takes time.
For over 400 years, in Tey’s story (which mirrors more or less the real world), it was generally accepted that Richard III was twisted in body and soul, stooped in back and morals. Who takes time to consider a statement in a school history book, brief and lurid as clickbait? But faced with a long spell of enforced leisure, Grant picks and picks until the knot untangles. This is surely the origin of the title and epigraph of today’s prescription: “Truth is the daughter of time.”
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