Friday, 22 May 2015

Robin Stevens Talks Josephine Tey

I am thrilled to welcome Robin Stevens, author of Murder Most Unladylike and its sequel, Arsenic for Tea (which I have read a few weeks ago - without reading the first in the series. I am a monster!). I have been following her on Twitter for ages and I love her. During reading Arsenic for Tea, I sent a small email, asking Robin if she would be up for writing a guest post for the blog. And she said yes! And it is it!!! And it doesn't help that it's now making me want to attack my crime novels in my TBR piles!

So, a huge thank you to Robin from finding time in her busy schedule to write this! And now, over to Robin to talk about one of her favourite crime author, Josephine Tey...

Whenever people ask me about my crime fiction influences, they expect to be told about Agatha Christie. And they’d be right – I owe a huge amount to her. Her plots, her characters, the way she approached mystery stories: you can see her in every book I write. But there’s another Golden Age author who I think I’m almost as indebted to, and that’s Josephine Tey.

Tey isn’t exactly forgotten. All of her books are currently in print, and I see them get mentioned a lot in lists of the best Golden Age crime novels. But all the same, I think she’s not mentioned nearly as much as she should be. Unlike Christie, who was disturbingly prolific (her total’s somewhere in the 70s), Tey only wrote eight books over a thirty year period – but each one of those books is an absolute masterpiece of plot and atmosphere, truly brilliant examples of what a crime novel can be.

I first discovered Tey as a fifteen year old, when I picked up an old copy of Miss Pym Disposes in the Strand bookstore in New York. I didn’t know anything about it, and really had no expectations (apart from that it was set in a boarding school, and I liked books about boarding schools) – and then I started to read it. It was one of those sideswiped-by-fate, dropping-off-a-cliff, falling-in-love experiences that every reader gets about seven times in their life: the realisation that here is one of your books, the one you’ve been waiting for, the one you’ll keep going on about for years and years even when it’s clear that the person you’re talking to is really bored.

Miss Pym Disposes is a boarding school book like no other: a sharp-edged pressure-cooker atmosphere that’s almost dream-like in its strangeness, characters who are troubled and wrong and a murder plot that’s sickeningly smart and awful. Without giving anything away, there’s a twist at the end that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since the day I first read it. Murder Most Unladylike shares a huge amount of DNA with it – actually, Miss Pym is a big part of why I wanted to write my own boarding school murder mystery.

Over the years I’ve very slowly read my way through Tey’s books. There’s The Franchise Affair, the most disturbing take on a kidnap novel that you’ll find; Brat Farrar, a story where a confidence trickster is the hero (I defy you not to fall in love with both him and the family he’s tricking); The Daughter of Time, a murder mystery that makes you doubt everything you thought you knew about Richard III . . . they’re all brilliant, and strange (strange is a word that I keep using for Tey – there’s a quality to her writing that can’t really be explained any other way), and oddly sad.

I’m so obsessed with her that I even used Brat Farrar as the basis of my MA dissertation (Brat’s story is based on the real-life Tichborne Claimant, and I proved this conclusively, breaking ground in the very niche scholarship area of Which Real Historical Crimes Are Crime Novels Stealing Bits From) – and, of course, I used Miss Pym Disposes as the basis of my first book. There’s a very small Tey Easter egg that I snuck in to Murder Most Unladylike as a tribute to her: on the evening of Miss Bell’s murder, Daisy and Hazel are down at school late because Daisy wants to finish reading Tey’s first crime novel, The Man in the Queue.

This is all a very roundabout way of saying that I think everyone who loves crime should read Tey. She’s a grande dame of the genre and I wish her fanbase was hundreds of times as big. If you’re a fan of Golden Age crime, I can’t recommend her highly enough.

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