How My Mother and Josephine Tey Led me into a Life of Crime

Versions of this story have appeared on various blogs, in the MWA Edgar Awards program guide, and I’ve used it as a speech for library fund-raisers.


My first memory is literally of my mother’s forefinger running beneath the words “Once upon a time, in a faraway land, lived a beautiful princess named Snow White. She had skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony.” I was reading before I got to kindergarten, and long before my first trip to the library.

The library in my home town of Seldovia, Alaska, was one room in the basement of city hall. It was open once a week on Monday nights, from 7pm to 10pm. Because it was so small with so few books, each patron could check out only four books at a time.

Easy RunningWe were living on a 75-fish tender named the Celtic when my mother dragged me up the ladder, over a mile of boardwalk and down a flight of rickety wooden steps into a small, musty room lined with bookshelves crammed with books, books with no pictures in them, just words. I gaped around as Mom consulted with our librarian, Susan B. English, and between the two of them they decided to start me on Nancy Drew. The first two books I checked out were The Hidden Staircase and The Clue in the Old Stagecoach. I finished the first one after dinner that evening and smuggled the second into bed with me, along with a flashlight, where I read under the covers until my eyelids could no longer resist the pull of gravity. I finished it the following morning propped up against my cereal bowl.

I was eight years old.

After that? I didn’t read mysteries much. My mother loved crime novels, especially those of British authors, including Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Agatha Christie. I preferred Robert Heinlein and Nevil Shute and Thomas B. Costain. I liked buckle and swash in my reading, not tea and manners.

She didn’t give up, though. It took her twenty-one years of patient persistence for my mother to get me to read Josephine Tey’s 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 The crime scene is sixteen generations out of date, there is no surviving forensic evidence, and the chroniclers of the time only prospered through patronage, which could and did influence their reporting.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.

richardiiiThe 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, 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 the sainted Sir Thomas More.

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

I launched into an extensive remedial reading in the genre, working up from Nancy, Frank and Joe to Travis, Kinsey, and Cadfael. I learned that most detectives are loners, with barely a working relationship between them. I learned that a lot of them aren’t professional police officers or even licensed private investigators, but Flavian imperial agents and Egyptologists and jockeys. I learned that most of these are 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 share a rock bottom resolution to fight for the right.

wsteIn 1987 my aunt quit a job in Wrangell-St. Elias Park, and I went to help her pack up. It’s a beautiful place, immense snow-capped mountains edging a lush green river valley, and it’s filled with characters, from the Athabascans who have lived there forever to families descended from stampeders to homesteaders who never got over the park being created around their property and who are still bitterly resentful of park rangers telling them to do anything.

That fall, while housesitting for a friend on the island of Hawaii, I finished my second science fiction novel, A Handful of Stars (1991). I had a third planned in the series (which became Red Planet Run, 1995), but I was exhausted from all the research and I wanted a break. I was reading through P.D. James and Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky at the time and I thought, “I wonder if I can write a mystery.”

With the Wrangell-St. Elias Park so fresh in my mind, it seemed the natural setting for the book. All I had to do was remember some of the people my aunt had introduced me to while we were there, and I had a cast of characters. And with the characters, all I had to do was remember some of the incendiary comments made about the Park Service and I had a plot, the murder of a park ranger.

A Cold Day for Murder, the first Kate Shugak novel, was finished in five months. After I sold my first science fiction novels, my editor said, in that endearing way editors do, “What else have you got?” and signed me to a three-book contract. A Cold Day for Murder came out in 1993 and won an Edgar award in 1994.

daughter-of-timeThe Daughter of Time started me down the road that led to Kate Shugak and Liam Campbell, and I will be forever grateful to my mother and Josephine Tey for the nudge.

Posted in Chatter, The Kate Shugak Novels and tagged , . Bookmark this.

33 Comments on How My Mother and Josephine Tey Led me into a Life of Crime

  1. hollygee says:

    This. Was. Fabulous.

  2. Janet says:

    How very fortunate are those of us who were read to as children! Your post reminds me to thank my parents.

  3. Becky Levine says:

    I can’t even remember when I read Daughter of Time. It was on my mom’s shelves, too, along with all the Christies and (maybe her favorite) the Sayers books. (I’m pretty sure the one crush Mom and I shared was Peter Wimsey, altho I’ve never asked!).

    It’s impossible to explain Daughter of Time to people who haven’t read it–how amazingly ACTIVE it is, with Grant laid up in bed. How quickly it moves. How much you NEED to know the answers, right along with him. This is a book that’s totally earned it’s right as a classic.

    Of course, my other favorite (maybe my MORE favorite) of hers is Brat Farrar, which so few people even know about.

  4. Cathy Fishburn says:

    I put the book in my lap during nap time and read instead of resting. The teacher did not approve and talked to my mother. My mom’s answer was “She’s quiet isn’t she?” I talked a lot in class:) The answer was “Yes.” The reading continued. Dana, we read a lot of the same authors. Your mother is doubly thanked! As it every mother who takes her child to the library.

  5. Dana says:

    All it takes to make a reader is a parent who reads to you. I firmly believe it is one of the greatest gifts you can give a child. I loved my mother for a lot of reasons, but I love her most for that.

  6. Cathy Fishburn says:

    My mom has been gone for 20 years now, but I have a tape of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” that she made for me when I was in my 20′s. I loved to hear her read poetry and she got tired of me asking her to read it. After all, by then I could read it to myself. I told her “it is not the same,” so she taped it and I am so glad she did, because she can still read to me.

  7. Tan says:

    Josephine who, now?

    I’ve got to go buy this book, right now.

  8. Dana says:

    Yes, you do!

  9. Jan says:

    This is over a year old, but I was looking at info on Josephine Tey and saw this story by another favorite author. I have read and reread most of Tey’s books. I love mysteries, and now know why I like the Shugak books so much. Learn something new all the time, even at my age!

  10. Dana says:

    Thanks, Jan. I just reread The Franchise Affair. Love her books.

  11. Judith Silverthorn says:

    Dana – thanks for stopping to say hello to my self and my mother – Irene in Scottsdale’s Poison Pen. Found this while starting N. Upson Leading me full circle to J. Tey which I cannot remember how I found originally but liked very much. Thank you also for providing great stories and keeping your fans with many new mysteries. There is still a Peace Corp story in your future.

  12. Dana says:

    My pleasure, Judith! And I hope you’re right about the Peace Corps story.

  13. Angela says:

    You are right about parents reading to their children. My second son has a mild form of dyslexia and I despaired of him ever reading anything he wasn’t forced to. We kept at it, however, and the day he asked me to take him to Barnes and Noble and buy him Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief, well, I’m not typically a crier but that day I did. Now, for his 13th birthday, he wants a Kindle and we are conspiring with everyone in the family to “give” him his favorite books preloaded on it. My heart is full. My son is a reader.

  14. Dana says:

    I wish you could see how wide my smile is, Angela. What a wonderful story. (Has he read The Hunger Games yet? He’ll love it!)

  15. KarenB says:

    We’re pretty thankful for your mother and Josephine Tey as well. Oh look! It’s a new Stabenow! (couldn’t resist)

    And of all the things you can do for your kids, reading to them has got to be one of the most important, she says proudly exhibiting her kiddies who need to occasionally have books pried out of their hands to 1) come eat dinner, 2) go to bed, 3) and, right, homework.

  16. Dana says:

    [glad you couldn't resist]

  17. Angela says:

    Dana-
    He hasn’t read those yet but I will see to it that the first on is on his new Kindle. Frankly, after reading a description of it, I think I will put it on mine first! Thanks for the suggestion…

  18. Theresa Berry says:

    Dana: I’m so glad to be able to communicate with you! I just discovered the Kate Shugak books and am hooked. Thank you for such fun, intelligent, and character rich books. I have a couple questions: why aren’t all of your books on Kindle? (I’d read them all!) Would you be willing to use your considerable influence to get the Josephine Tey books on Kindle? Would you also talk with the Kindle forces that be about their typos in the Kindle versions of your books? They aggravate me.

    Thanks for reading and considering this and thank you for writing as you do. Your books provide entertainment but they also help me remember what is important in life–people who love us, individual power, a connection with nature, and a good and faithful dog. I wish you well in life and I hope you will come to Louisville, KY, to speak (and/or perhaps fundraise for our library?) one day.

  19. Dana says:

    Hi, Theresa! I am currently working with Gere Donovan Press to get all of my out of print backlist out in e-format (see here http://www.stabenow.com/novels/kate-shugak/a-cold-day-for-murder, here http://www.stabenow.com/novels/kate-shugak/a-fatal-thaw, here http://danastabenow.cmail1.com/t/ViewEmail/r/562823DA0E311538. You might like to subscribe to my newsletter here http://www.stabenow.com/newsletter and “like” me on Facebook here http://www.facebook.com/danastabenowauthor?sk=wall&filter=12 to be able to keep up with the news.

    I wouldn’t know where to begin to get Josephine Tey on Kindle. I’m guessing she had or has heirs. It would be up to them to get her books out in e-format. I would love to see it happen, too.

    As for the typos and formatting errors in the Liams that were originally published in Kindle format, that’s my bad. I tried uploading them myself and shouldn’t have. The new editions available from Gere Donovan Press have been rigorously proofed, although we do still hear from people like you who spot errors (you’re all better copyeditors and proofreaders than anyone in New York), and we get them corrected immediately upon hearing about them. I can only apologize and beg for your forgiveness.

    And I would love to come to Kentucky and speak at your library! Now if we can only figure out a way for my publisher to pick up the tab…

  20. Sherry says:

    I’m reading the newest Kate Shugak novel after devouring all the others, mostly in chronological order. I “found” you and Kate as I was planning for a vacation in Alaska next summer. How could it get any better? Mystery stories (MY FAVORITE!) with themes that taught me about Alaskan history, culture, society, economics, sociology, ecology, etc. You even gave me information that helped me choose our side trips. Thanks for such interesting characters and story lines.

  21. Dana says:

    And thank you for the wonderful compliment, Sherry!

  22. G says:

    Much of Tey is in the public domain, so rather than “Kindle” DRM e-books, there are open “mobi” e-books available.

  23. Mark Bohrer says:

    I’ve wondered for a number of years if you were related to Art Stabenow. I was a design manager for several years at San Jose, California’s Micro Linear Corp., where he was CEO. We got to Homer this summer, even hiked around fresh bear scat in Kachemak Bay State Park. I should have bought one of those autographed copies of a Night Too Dark at the Homer bookstore. I ended up reading it on my Nook at home.

    It used to be Tony Hillerman’s books keeping me company on busines trips or vacation flights. Now I read about Kate Shugak’s latest cases, and imagine myself on an inholding in Wrangell-St. Elias. You’re lucky to live where you do.

    Thank you for creating intensely interesting people I’d like to get to know in a place that’s still wild.

    Mark B
    Saratoga, California

  24. Dana says:

    No relation to Art, Mark. But that’s great company I’m keeping on your bookshelf, thank you so much!

  25. Cherie says:

    I had my nose buried in a book from the moment I figured out those squiggles on the page were a different kind of picture. Somehow though I burned out on reading my freshman year in college. I could barely manage to make it through enough of the writing in my texts to get the subject material in class (so I guess it was a good thing the classes weren’t that challenging that first year). Along with other things happening at the time in my life, it was making me crazy – I’d lost my best friend, my escape.

    What finally brought me back to sanity was not Josephine Tey (at first, though she was among those who kept me there) , but Dorothy Sayers. One of the professors in my English department was teaching an evening course in mysteries and I had picked up _Clouds of Whitness_ along with the textbooks for my courses in the spring. The book sat there for a long time. But finally sometime during the spring semester I picked it up and started reading. And I could. I could read not just a sentence or two as I’d been having to be content with for months, but I read whole chapters, and then the whole book. It took a whole weekend, but I read a whole book for the first time in more than a year. Part of the reason it took the weekend was that I was so enthralled that I kept gooing back and rereading parts of it. I loved this new world and the people in it, their quirky mannerisms, their oddities. When I was done, I went looking for the rest of the Sayers books. And then I went looking for other books like those. I was lucky to have that professor teaching the mystery class as my interim advisor at the time – one whole wall of her office was lined with mysteries, and she kept a terrific reading list.

    I think Tey was the second mystery writer I devoured after Sayers. The Daughter of Time is the one I always remember best, the one I can still pull bits and pieces of from my memory, which doesn’t happen often enough. Amanda Cross, Robert Barnard (I dearly love the puns in his early titles), John Dickson Carr, Dashiell Hammett, Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald … put me in a locked room in a pair of gumshoes and let me think my way through a mystery any day.

    I could be a snob as an English major and read only “literary” fiction. But I think most of us these days are realizing that genres are putting artificial barriers between good writing and an appreciative audience. Some of the best writing I’ve read has been mysteries. Daugther of Tme falls into that categories. Some of the Kate books I’d put on that list. And sometimes, your brain just needs good potato chips to escape with, and writing, mysteries, can provide that too.

  26. Liz says:

    I love this post. what a revelation!

  27. Diana Cook says:

    Dana, I have been reading your books since the first Kate Shugak came out. I was thrilled to find your sci fi ones on Amazon after not finding them anywhere else ever….I was read to by my parents, who were read to by their parents….I read to my kids until they got to be teenagers….I read stories to kids for a living at a library. It gives me no greater pleasure than to see those little kids grow up into adults who come back to the library, and then bring their own children. I think even with Kindles and tablets and e-books, the library will still be the place to go to learn things, to enjoy things and to connect with your kids. Thanks for promoting libraries and readers, and thanks for creating all the great books that you write. And thank you for the Josephine Tey title. I haven’t read it yet and will have to add it to the long list of “books I wanna read”…Without authors, there would be no books, no matter what format. Thanks.

  28. Karen Bailey says:

    Theresa you need to download Calibre ebook reader and go to the Apprentice Alf blog and download the plugins for Calibre follow the installation instructions then go to Barnes and Noble, Itunes, Kobo, Google Play or any one ebook seller with EPUB format books. Once you purchase the book add out to your Calibre library then convert it to Kindle format. You are ready to go then.

  29. Dana says:

    Thanks, Diana, and Theresa, thanks for the tip.

  30. Sue says:

    Thank you, Dana — I enjoyed this very much and will be looking for Tey and Sayers and a few of these other authors for my Nexus reader.
    My sister and I were read to as tots and participated in library reading contests every summer at our tiny branch library. They tended to emphasize books from authors like Thornton W. Burgess, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Johnny Gruelle, Albert Payson Terhune, and Marguerite Henry. Those were great authors for novice readers to cut their little teeth on, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to any beginning reader, even today (provided that any of those books can still be found). For me, a lifelong addiction to reading was the result!

  31. Dana says:

    It’s a habit I’ve never managed to shake myself, Sue. Or ever tried to, for that matter.

  32. What a fabulous post; I love learning how writers got their yen for storytelling. And so timely, too, now that Richard III’s body has been found under a parking lot in England, and folks from the Ricardian Society are attempting to exonerate him from the evils of Shakespeare!

    I have to say, too, I love your work. My aunt, who I lived with in Anchorage the summer after my freshman year of college, introduced me to your books. Several have been read in bathtubs until the water turned cold and me into a prune. My first historical novel was published by a small press just this past Fall, and I firmly believe all those wonderful books I’ve read over the years have influenced my own stories. Thank you!

  33. Dana says:

    Thanks so much, Katherine.

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