Odd how sometimes you pick up a book by an author you used to like and then off you go and find another and then you stumble across some more. This is what has happened with me and Josephine Tey. I remember reading some of her books as a teenager, not all of them, not by a long shot but I do remember The Franchise Affair which I posted about earlier this year, and Brat Farrar (a copy of which I found this morning) and over the weekend while I was in Leicestershire I read To Love and Be Wise (I have the Singing Sands waiting for me also). So a Tey-fest at the moment.
Inspector Alan Grant is dining with an actress friend and as he arrives at a party to collect her, he bumps into a young American in the hallway. He is blonde, handsome and fascinating "...that boy was making an impression on me in thirty sconds flat and at a range of twenty yards and I'm considered practically incombustible..." This is the opinion of Grant's friend, Marta when she is introduced to the American, who is a photographer and claims acquantaince with the hostess of the party, Lavinia Fitch an author, and is invited to stay in the cocuntry as her guest. Here, Leslie Searle, fascinates and charms all who he comes into contact with.
Walter, a broadcaster and author, his fiance Liz, Lavinia and the entire household - Leslie gives little away of himself and yet everyone with whom he comes into contact falls under his spell. However, he also has an unsettling effect on those he charms and makes them feel uncertain just why he makes them feel happy and more witty and amusing in his company than in any other. Walter watches him one night playing off two residents, London artists living in the country, against one another "He buried his face in his beer mug and enjoyed the faces of his friends. It was only afterwards, rolling it over in his mind to savour it, that a vague discomfort pricked him. The fun had been so bland, so lighly handled, that its essential quality, its ruthlessness, had not been apparent"
Later, as they are walking away from the pub Searle points out to him that Liz, his fiance "....likes lights, golden like that in the daylight. Before the dark turns them white" For the first time, Walter considers Searle in relation to Liz and is not sure he likes what he sees "He took it for granted that he knew everything about Liz. But he had not known a simple little fact like her pleasure in lights in the daytime. But Searle the newcomer had learned that and, what was more remembered it. A faint ripple stirred the flat waters of Walter's self satisfaction"
So, all is not as it seems and Leslie Searle seems to take a perverse pleasure in shooting little darts and puncturing happiness and serenity. But why? and then he disappears one dark night after an argument with Walter and Inspector Alan Grant is called in to take charge of a possible case of murder.
The further Grant investigates, the more he feels that Searle is not dead and that he is being led up the garden path and when he looks into his American background as a photographer he stumbles across one tiny fact that leads him to solve the mystery of Mr Searle's behaviour.
Josephine Tey delights in imbuing the reader with a vague sense of uneasiness and a feeling that there is something right in front of us leading the reader to the solution. I remember this feeling when reading Brat Farrar as a teenager and finding it infuriating and tantalising and this story had the same effect on me and, because I remembered the twists and turns in Brat Farrar which had so fascinated me, I suddenly knew the answer to the mystery in To Love and be Wise. It just popped up in my head and I was delighted to find I was correct. It is a solution that can leave the reader feeling slightly skewed and some might say it is unfair and slightly unbelievable, but the atmosphere of artificiality and unreality surrounding Leslie Searle is beautifully created, right from his appearance on the very first page. I have an old Pan edition, love the cover, and the tag line on this edition is 'Will keep you up all night to finish it' ..BBC.
Well, not quite all night but I did stay up fairly late proppping up my eyelids until I did and I am now halfway through The Singing Sands which I think is going to do the same.
I do love these old fashioned early 20th century crime novels. No computers, no DNA, no mad chases in screaming squad cars with cries of Go Go Go Go Go!! just good solid old time honest to goodness police work with coppers and Inspectors of a kind who now no longer exist. If they ever did of course.
Am thoroughly enjoying my rediscovery of Josephine Tey even if they are hard to track down and are out of print. Worth keeping an eye out for.