16 December 2011
Book Review: A Shilling for Candles, by Josephine Tey
I've mentioned it before, but I'll say it again: one thing about Tey that I've come to appreciate is that the reader needs a few chapters to get into the story. In most of the books, the action gets going pretty quickly; for instance, in A Shilling for Candles the body is discovered in the first chapter. But this doesn't mean that story really takes off from here. Tey takes the time to build things up. She describes characters in some detail, establishes the necessary background information (that she later draws from to develop the solution to the mystery), and feels at times like she's wandering. She's not. But it took me a while to figure this out.
What's most important about Tey's writing style is that she tries to create a measure of authenticity for the work of a police officer. Inspector Grant isn't Poirot. In other words, he doesn't look things over and then go back to his flat to sit in his armchair, enjoy his tisane, and let the little grey cells work. Grant is a working, on-the-ground, sifting-through-the-details police officer. So we follow him through the process of getting to the solution. He interviews people, asks the necessary questions, and reviews the details; he chats about them with his sergeant, and the two consider possibilities. He often focuses on the wrong person first and then gets to the right person (who has, of course, done a very wrong thing) later on.
So this is what happens in A Shilling for Candles. In fact, Grant is pretty much positive that the culprit is one person, and then another; he's wrong, but he has to get through the process of discovering this with the evidence.
As for the plot, it is in many ways quite simple: a body is discovered floating in the water, and it is initially assumed that the person -- clad in a swimsuit -- has gotten caught in a current and drowned during an early morning swim. Further inspection indicates that the swimmer has actually been drowned by person or persons unknown. Further research also indicates that the swimmer in question is a well-known film actress who goes by the name of Christine Clay. Everyone is shocked, naturally. Clay was beautiful, talented, and fairly popular. It seems difficult to find someone who really had a strong enough motive for killing her. Once again, further inspection is necessary to discover that there were a few who would benefit from Clay's death and that one of them is almost certainly responsible for her death.
The summary on the back notes that this particular story is the (loose) basis for Alfred Hitchcock's film Young and Innocent. I haven't seen it, and after reading a synopsis I'm not particularly tempted to do so. (It appears that the murderer in the film isn't the same as the murderer in the book.) If you have seen it, however, you will recognize elements of the story. I suspect you'll also find a somewhat more cohesive storyline in A Shilling for Candles.
Two thumbs up for this book. Another fine mystery from Josephine Tey.
Year of publication: 1936
Number of pages: 236