A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey

I find Josephine Tey’s authorial tone snobbish and chilly, as if she doesn’t really “do” emotion, but she’s nevertheless an entertaining and intelligent writer. Her attitudes are those of the first part of the twentieth century, just as mine are of my own time.

Generally I am snared by the narrative of a detective story and only pick holes in it in retrospect, but with A Shilling for Candles I was critical even as I read it. It was pretty obvious early on who was the innocent and who the guilty party. Moreover, some of the characters had the distinct air of favourites dreamt up by the author rather than stepping out from life; yes, Miss Erica Burgoyne, I mean you.

The usual chilly tone was downright unsympathetic: if you’re going to kill off an admirable famous character in the first pages, perhaps you shouldn’t be quite so sneering when her many fans mourn her death to excess. To have a character suggest that he would happily have seen this “sub-human mass of hysteria” gunned down is perhaps excessive. (What would Tey have thought of Beatles fans, I wonder?) Jewish characters are also presented in a way that’s now problematic, and as for the industrialised working classes . . .  well, where are my smelling salts?

But, at her best, I find Tey interesting for the insights she offers into the habits and attitudes of her age, and for the predominance of self-sufficient, rather emotionally isolated and sexually ambiguous characters in her novels. Tey never fades out on a kiss. In fact her best portrayal of a successful relationship may be that between Marion and her mother in The Franchise Affair, where – if I remember correctly – they live happily together by keeping their distance from each other.

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