The bedridden detective in Josephine Tey’s 1951 novel The Daughter of Time receives an important book from a friend; it’s accompanied by a brief note: “Can’t think why one never thinks of Public Libraries. Probably because books expected to be soupy. Think this looks quite clean and unsoupy.” Having been guilty in recent years of thinking that exact thing of libraries, I dug into my New Year’s resolutions and checked the book out from the depths of the Walker Library. It was kind of a weird novel for me to read since I’m a big fan of neither detective stories nor historical fiction, but author Josephine Tey manages to combine them into an enjoyable whole.

You know the old proverb that goes something like “if you introduce a gun in the first act, it must go off by the third?” I have a corollary that applies to historical novels: “if a book’s first page consists of a family tree, every name must be learned and forgotten by the reader before the end.” The family tree in question here is that of the English royal family during the Wars of the Roses. The mystery to be solved is that of Richard III and the murder of his two nephews. Laid up in bed with a busted leg, Scotland Yarder Alan Grant is driven (more by boredom than anything else) to play armchair detective and examine the common belief that Richard killed his nephews in order to clear a path to the throne for himself.

What’s interesting about the novel isn’t what Grant discovers about the murder or the Lancasters or Yorks or Plantagenets (I’ve already forgotten all the names in that family tree), but what he discovers about the production of history. Despite the fact that everyone knows that Richard had his nephews offed — it’s in Shakespeare, for crying out loud — Grant becomes increasingly distressed at the complete lack of evidence implicating the king. As the book progresses, Grant discovers an unsettling fact about history: a lot of it just isn’t true. Gossip and hearsay spread and worm their way into history books, eventually trumping actual facts, becoming “a completely untrue story grown to legend while the men who knew it to be untrue looked on and said nothing.”

I’m counting on my fingers, and realizing that a sizable percentage of this weblog’s regular readers are trained and/or practicing historians; the unreliability of received knowledge is probably old news to y’all, and in that case, thanks for humoring me. At any rate, The Daughter of Time is a nice, breezy read; any book that manages to attack weighty historical questions in the form of an armchair detective novel without getting thoroughly bogged down in logy dialogue deserves some credit.