I want to give this book a higher rating based purely on the inventiveness of the plot: a detective for Scotland Yard, immobilized in the hospital by an injury, decides to occupy himself with a historical mystery – Cold Case, Hospital Edition, essentially. The mystery he eventually lands on is one that everyone has at least a passing knowledge of: Is Richard III the hunchbacked monster who stole his brother’s throne and murdered his nephews, or was someone else responsible for the deaths of the infamous Princes in the Tower? (At this point, everyone who has read at least one non-fiction book about Richard will be rolling their eyes at my question and muttering, “well, duh, isn’t it obvious?” You may be excused.)
It’s a great basis for a mystery novel: applying traditional detective techniques to a famous historical mystery, and if nothing else, I loved watching our detective investigate Richard III like he was just some everyday schmuck accused of murder. He reads various historical accounts of Richard (including a historical fiction novel, because it’s just as important to see how Richard is portrayed in fiction) and asks the hospital staff questions about Richard exactly in the way a detective would interview a suspect’s family and acquaintances to get a better picture of the man. So even when the story took a turn for the improbable, as it frequently does, I found myself getting sucked into the murder investigation and genuinely enjoying the ride.
But aspects nagged at me constantly – specifically, the “history” presented in this book. The majority of the characters know very little about Richard, so it’s reasonable that they would know only the pop-culture side of Richard. But at the same time, the detective and his immediate circle seem to have more of an in-depth knowledge of the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses, so the mistakes they make are baffling. Everyone starts out referring to Richard as a hunchback, and it’s treated as a revelation when halfway through the story some character points out that Shakespeare actually might have taken some artistic license with Richard’s life. In the book’s most infuriating moment, the detective starts out researching Richard by reading Thomas More’s biography of him, and then like forty pages later he smacks himself in the head and is like, “Great Scott! Thomas More was employed by Henry VIII, the son of Richard’s replacement! More’s testimony is completely suspect!” (I’m paraphrasing here) and I was staring at the page shrieking “Are you kidding me? You know who Amy Robsart was but you can’t remember that Thomas More worked for Henry VIII?” It was so clearly an attempt by Tey to create an early twist in the investigation, and I didn’t believe it for a second.
One thing to take into consideration, of course, is that this book was written in 1951, and Richard’s historical reputation as a murderous villain was pretty much set in stone, so I guess it’s understandable that the characters would believe all the myths about him. Or would they? That’s another issue: at the time of publication, how revolutionary were the ideas Tey’s detective was discovering? Towards the end a character says that although Richard had his defenders in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, no one has written anything defending his reputation in the 20th century. That’s obviously untrue now, but was it in 1951? I wasn’t sure, and it made me genuinely curious about what sources were available to Tey at the time the book was written. It’s really unclear how much is reliable and how much she just made up to suit her mystery.
The lazy history of the story leaves me with a dilemma: who to recommend this to? Hardcore Tudor/Wars of the Roses scholars are out, obviously, because the first mention of Richard being a hunchback will have them throwing the book out the window. But at the same time, I would hesitate to offer this book to someone who knew nothing about Richard. I’ve read only one non-fiction book about the Wars of the Roses, and found myself frequently getting lost in the discussions of who married who and who was enemies with who. And as I said, the detective knows who Amy Robsart is, but if you don’t you’re out of luck, because she’s mentioned early on as one of the historical cases that the detective isn’t interested in, but there’s barely any context provided, and Tey just assumes that we know all about Amy Robsart and her connection to Robert Dudley.
Another annoyance to me was Tey’s continuous dumping on historians and the whole study of history. One of the themes of the book is myth vs. fact, and how even people who know the truth of a story are likely to go along with the myth instead. Tey (or her characters, anyway) spend a lot of time lamenting this fact, and blaming historians for going along with the myths and not taking the time to discover the truth. A character actually goes so far as to say, “A man who understands about people hasn’t any yen to write history. History is toy soldiers…it’s moving little figures about on a flat surface. It’s half-way to mathematics, when you come to think about it.”
While the history majors are all busy cleaning up the various liquids they just spewed all over their computer screens, I’ll try to defend Tey’s statement a bit. Again, this was 1951, when the study of history was done mainly by old white men who were only concerned with studying dead white men. The study of history has changed since then, and there’s been more interest in looking at commonly accepted stories, like the idea of Richard III as a murderer, and seeing if there isn’t more to the story. A character, talking about wanting to write a book about what he and the detective have discovered, says he wants to write about “how we stuck to things that actually happened and not what someone reported afterwards about it, and how we looked for breaks in the normal pattern that would indicate where the mischief was”, which is exactly what modern historians do when they’re researching someone. The research techniques described in the book may have been revolutionary in 1951, but there’s nothing particularly startling about them today.
The idea behind this book is fascinating and fun, but ultimately the history is just too questionable for me to enjoy the story as much as I’d like to. I wish I could have read it in 1951, when the ideas Tey is showing us were new and exciting. To modern readers, unfortunately, the book will remain just a slightly entertaining but frustrating, terribly dated story.
Anyway, everything you need to know about Richard’s reputation in history is already right here.
Verdict: three out of five stars