Monday, January 21, 2013

The Daughter of Time

When I was in college, I took a course on early American history, and one of the things I vividly remember to this day (aside from the inspiration behind a character's suddenly rapid development in a book I've been working on for a really long time and the pretty girl who always sat in the front of the class and an attempt to broaden at least one classmate's appreciation and comprehension of poetry) was the moment I learned that John Adams prosecuted the court case for the Boston Massacre, and rightly defended the accused British officers as not only not being involved in an actual massacre but only reacting when they eventually did at great provocation.

Oh, don't get me wrong.  What I most took away from that was a new-found and enduring respect for Adams' integrity.  But it was my first libertyvalance, my first Tonypandy, when I discovered that the history books don't always take the side of history.  I grew up believing in the Boston Massacre as much as the riled up patriots of the day, so to have my view of that event completely turned around was a formative moment of my development.

(I'm getting around to our subject, I swear!  To wit:)

Earlier than that, I got caught up in the small hoopla over the Al Pacino film Looking for Richard.  It's probably the last time critics respected Al, but I continue to digress.  Looking for Richard is about his staging of Shakespeare's Richard III, the play best known for "My kingdom for a horse!," featuring the famous bastard king of England in his ultimate downfall as all his machinations finally come crashing down around him, much like Nixon's Watergate.

What I took away from it, and what kept bringing me back to it, was Al's incredibly sympathetic understanding not only of the play but of its subject.  I think that's Al's great strength as an actor, to identify the flaw at the heart of a perfect design and to look completely miserable even when everything seems to be going his way, the suffering fool, the martyr to a cause no one will ever fully comprehend.

That in a way is what The Daughter of Time is all about.  It's about trying to rehabilitate the reputation of Richard III by way of an investigation into the facts of his supposed murder of the two boys, Princes in the Tower, who were supposed to be the legitimate heirs to the thrown he ruled for two years.  The investigator is Alan Grant, Josephine Tey's own Holmes or Poirot, locked up in a hospital bed with a broken leg with nothing to amuse him that he actually finds amusing until an acquaintance brings a stack of pictures to him, one of which he mistakes as an unassailable innocent rather than the unmistakably corrupt figure Richard III is known to be by everyone Grant knows.

So he starts to look into the facts, partly to clear himself of the apparent botched identification, when he prides himself on just that ability (a little like the central character of Javier Marias' brilliant Your Face Tomorrow).  Soon he has people bringing him books and then the helpful aid of an American already doing his own research at the British Museum, so he can sift out the record from the history.

He discovers that Richard is indeed quite innocent and that his successor, Henry VII, is likely the true source of the scandal and attempt to pin it on Richard.  That's it, really.

It's both disappointing and reasonably exhilarating, like any mystery.  Grant himself is paper thin, the American speaks the same English phrasing as Grant, and it devolves into Tey pretty much presenting all her research and thoughts without any real story happening around it.  In a way, this was prepared in advance for the reader by having Grant muse how the most interesting histories are the ones that present it with dialogue.  Well, maybe not like this.

Yet people really did like Tey, and The Daughter of Time, in its original publication.  The author was hailed as the writer of mysteries that were basically anything but the expected framework others used, and true enough, this is no standard mystery.  It's a history lesson as mystery.  Except Tey is in such a rush to present her conclusions that she does a disservice both to them and the story.  At a certain point she just lets her characters start drawing the necessary lessons and knowing exactly what they need to know in order for a fairly speedy end to wrap it up, even going so far as to finally admit that most of this was already known in the final pages, and that her characters simply didn't know it, especially somehow the American doing all the heaviest research.

And yet somehow it's supposed to be surprising that people generally skip over facts in order to draw conclusions.  Well.

Plenty of writers have used this framework in the years since.  The Da Vinci Code famously drew up the scandalous true nature of the Holy Grail and served it up to millions because it was a mystery the central character breathlessly solved, even though Dan Brown based it on a book that had existed for years.  Even J.K. Rowling used these ideas when shaping the story of Harry Potter, not just as the wizarding establishment presented its own version of events as they were developing in strict contrast to what the reader knew, but in the presentation of Severus Snape, the hero at the center of the saga's real tragedy, who worked alongside the good old boy Dumbledore in order to pretend allegiance with the big bad villain Voldemort, so that everyone, even most of the readers, believed that Snape was a rotten apple the whole time.

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart prints the legend instead of reporting what John Wayne really did, because it reads so much better.  Much of what happened to Richard III was the last rattles of the Wars of the Roses, which Americans should find plenty familiar, given that we've had our Wars of Elephants and Asses for decades now, and have sat through endless speculation as to how JFK really died, even watched as the film JFK was whitewashed with character assassination and court historian-approved dismissal in Reclaiming History.  The intrigue of Daughter of Time isn't really what became of Richard, but how its author couldn't connect B to C, as Grant muses in the book.

Well, maybe it's not so surprising.  Josephine Tey never actually existed.  And neither did Gordon Daviot.  Both were pseudonyms for Elizabeth MacKintosh, who apparently never really came to understand why historians are as prone as authors at making up their own stories.  Authors with various names will always amuse me.  They will always have their reasons.  But it will always boil down to the fact that it makes it easier for the authors themselves to reconcile their peculiar career choice.  This is one who chocked up reconciliation as a diatribe against her own cousins, and then wrote a book about a convoluted royal affair, assuming that everyone really did consider Richard III a villain and working backward from there.

Although in truth Henry VII was pretty successful on that count.  I believed all the weird accusations against Richard, even the hunchback myth.

All very interesting, but it could have been done better.  Sometimes John Adams turns out to be a lot more interesting than you used to believe.  But that's not the end of the story.  And that's not even to mention Quincy.

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