A true oddity. A novel that always shows up on various lists of the greatest mystery novels ever written, but it's hardly a mystery at all. It's loosely based on the true story of Elizabeth Canning, and it has a mystery premise: a young woman named Betty Kane accuses two spinster women, a mother and daughter, of kidnapping her in order to turn her into their maid. She claims that when she refused they kept her in an attic room and beat her. The story is narrated by the mild-mannered lawyer hired to defend Marion Sharpe and her mother, the two women accused.
Josephine Tey was, in reality, the Scottish writer Elizabeth Mackintosh, who wrote just eight mysteries under her pseudonym. What makes her truly stand out from other writers during the golden age of the mystery novel is how unorthodox she was as a plotter; some of her mystery novels barely qualify as mysteries at all, including this one, for the simple reason that it is made clear early on who is telling the truth and who isn't. The suspense comes from wondering if the innocent will triumph in the end.
But what the novel really seems to be about is a kind of class warfare, an attack on a new breed of English citizen in the post-war years. Reading this book led me to a very interesting article by the excellent writer Sarah Waters, well worth reading here. She concludes that there is something ugly about this book, about the specter of a loose-moralled woman impinging on England's gentry.
I think Waters is mostly right but I still enjoyed the book, even though I didn't find it much of a mystery. I kept expecting some notable twist to occur, something to justify its place in the canon. But Tey is a ridiculously good writer with a knack for writing brilliantly realized and humorous characters. Her dialogue is great, and her prose stellar, and that alone kept me reading.
And one more thing. If I've convinced someone to read a Josephine Tey book, and that's doubtful, don't read this one. Read, of course, The Daughter of Time, her defense of Richard III, and the book that is often cited at the top of those lists of the greatest mystery novels ever written.