Democracy is.

We received a letter from the Writers’ War Board the other day asking for a statement on “The Meaning of Democracy.” It presumably is our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure.

Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.


–E.B. White, 1943

E.B. White

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“…and enemies, which were legion.”

The prosecution had rested the day before with an air of relief. The defense had recalled the investigating officer that morning, extracting without difficulty more evidence over time of many of Washington’s — the defense here coughed deprecatingly — family in the house at McKinley and Alder, as well as evidence of many more sets of smudged and partial prints not belonging to the defendants on the weapon. By the time the defense had excused the officer, opportunity had been extended to fifteen people, or more, if you included Da Prez’s friends, which were few, rivals, which were many, and enemies, which were legion.

–Siren Song

The Collected Short Stories


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How Josephine Tey Led Me into a Life of Crime

For the 2003 Edgar awards program book.

——————

I have a confession to make.

The first two books I ever checked out of the Seldovia Public Library were The Hidden Staircase and The Clue in the Old Stagecoach. Yes, I loved them, and yes, they returned me hotfoot to the library, where, yes, I went through the rest of the Nancy Drews on the shelf in about a month.

But after that? I didn’t read mysteries much. My mother loved them, especially those of British authors, including Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Agatha Christie. Perhaps, in the perverse way of children, because she did, I didn’t. She didn’t give up, though. It took her twenty-one years of patient persistence to get me to read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time.

The Daughter of Time

It was a revelation. To this day, The Daughter of Time remains the finest crime novel I have ever read, and one of the finest novels of any kind. In it, a policeman is confined to a hospital bed, literally unable to sit upright, and from that bed he solves a double homicide committed four hundred years before. The crime scene is sixteen generations out of date, there is no surviving forensic evidence, and the chroniclers of the time only prospered through patronage, which could and did influence their reporting.

And yet, Tey’s hero prevails, and this in spite of the fact that he spends the entire first paragraph staring at the ceiling. Yes, really, and in this era of kiss kiss bang bang yet another reason to marvel at the craft of this novel.

The plot is above reproach, perfectly paced and sustaining of tension throughout, an extraordinary accomplishment when you realize that the facts of the case have been known for over four centuries. Tey takes the murder of the Princes in the Tower as her text, and in a completely convincing exercise of revisionist history exonerates Richard III, the man history has judged guilty of the crime.

The characterization is phenomenal, from that intelligent, charming protagonist, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, to the much-maligned Richard III himself. The cast of secondary characters is equally appealing. There is elegant actress Marta Hallard with “her best lower-register Electra voice;” Marta’s “woolly lamb” Brent Carradine who “said goodnight in a quiet smothered way, and ambled out of the room followed by the sweeping skirts of his topcoat;” Sergeant Williams, “large and pink and scrubbed-looking.” How can you not want to read more about Mrs. Tinker, whose “homely face appeared in the aperture surmounted by her still more homely and historic hat?”

And then there are the dead-on and frequently devastating sidelights that have nothing to do with plot and everything to do with condition and culture, as in Marta’s report of her fellow actor’s “disappearance” from a play in the middle of its performance, a hilarious window on another world. Or how about this description of the pile of books Grant’s friends have brought him in hospital:

…the public talked about ‘a new Silas Weekly’ or ‘a new
Lavinia Fitch’ exactly as they talked about ‘a new brick’
or ‘a new hairbrush.’…Their interest was not in the book
but in its newness. They knew quite well what the book
would be like.

Ouch. After that, I won’t even mention Tey’s character assassinations of Mary, Queen of Scots and Sir Thomas More.

Reading The Daughter of Time was my epiphany. In that moment, I realized you could do anything in detective fiction, so long as a) there was a mystery, and b) by the end of the book that mystery was solved.

I launched an extensive remedial reading in the genre, working up from Nancy, Frank and Joe to Travis, Kinsey, and Cadfael. I learned that most detectives were loners, with barely a working relationship between them. I learned that a lot of them weren’t professional police officers or even licensed private investigators, but Flavian imperial agents and archaeologists and jockeys and salvage consultants and monks. I learned that most of these were cordially disliked by their official counterparts on the local police force, but not all. I learned that despite their frequently cynical and world-weary surface they shared a rock bottom resolution to fight for the right.

You read that many detective novels and you develop an itch to write your own. The Daughter of Time started me down the road that led to Kate Shugak and Liam Campbell, and I will be forever grateful to Josephine Tey for the nudge.

Pardon? Oh. You wanted to know whodunit.

Think Tudor, not York.

Josephine Tey

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