Another excellent example of "not your ordinary mystery novel". A body is discovered on a beach, and the immediate assumption of suicide is soon contradicted by the evidence. (I have to say I'm a little impressed that the article found with the body which indicates murder is never mentioned in anything I've read online about the book (and in fact morphed into something else for the film adaptation (1937's Young and Innocent, said to be Hitchcock's personal favorite among his British films); I'm glad to continue to keep the secret.) The most obvious suspect isn't after all so obvious – and turns up missing – and what for about a minute seemed neat and tidy turns out to be a tangled ball of false confessions, astrology, suspects requiring delicate handling, and wardrobe searches. Alan Grant's presence in this book is somewhere between that in The Franchise Affair – peripheral – and the his greater omnipresence in The Man in the Queue - in addition to his there are many points of view, beautifully handled and rewarding, but he is in the forefront here.
The plot is gripping; the characterizations natural; if the solution to the mystery is not necessarily one that can be worked out by the armchair detective, that isn't really the point of the book anyway – the impression is that A Shilling for Candles wasn't written primarily as a puzzle to solve. It was, I think, written more as a psychological exercise, an exploration of personality and the consequences of celebrity and of being involved in a homicide. There is the contrast of the rather extraordinary ordinary girl, Erica, with the glitter and sparkle and hollowness of the celebrities. And Alan Grant is a star, in all the best senses of the word.
A word I saw used in a summary of one of Miss Tey's other books used the word "excoriating" and it suits here as well. That reference was in regards to the attitude in To Love and Be Wise toward modern writers; here the recipient of the book's scorn is The Public, that seething mindless mass of neediness. The murder victim, Christine, was a star of the first magnitude, and thus even had it been natural her death is not something that could be quietly mourned in private by those closest to her. Her celebrity and the circumstances of her death break it wide open, making both privacy and quiet impossible. Since I read this, Whitney Houston died, and the constant invasion into her family's lives was appalling, down to disruptions of her teenaged daughter's life and, I believe, publication of photos of the nude corpse (see also Marilyn Monroe). I thought the menace of inexcusable paparazzi and the public appetite that allows for them was a more recent development; I honestly don't know if I'm relieved or saddened that it's always been this way.
This disparagement of the Masses put together with the little I know about Josephine Tey's career as Gordon Daviot, very successful playwright, gives me pause. Much of what I know about this aspect of her life is from the novel which uses her as a character, An Expert in Murder, by Nicola Upson; it was not entirely to my taste, but I don't question the research that went into it (though I take everything with a grain of salt, of course, if for no other reason that that I've also read Daughter of Time). If I don't plan to use the book as source material for anything, I will take the setting described as something like accurate: in the story, Daviot's play Richard of Bordeaux is at its height, and there are people who go to see the play over and over. And over. (In Daughter of Time, it is, disarmingly, mentioned that Alan Grant saw it four times.) They sought out the actors and snapped up souvenirs. While Miss Tey/Mr. Daviot might have escaped most of the throng (though for some reason I think the pseudonym was an open secret), she probably had a fair awareness of what it was like for her players, who had no such anonymity. It's sobering to read the following quote with that in mind; Alan has picked up Champneis, Christine Clay's husband, shortly after the funeral, which despite the precautions they tried to take became a circus:
"Those women. I think the end of our greatness as a race must be very near. We came through the war well, but perhaps the effort was too great and left us – epileptic. Great shocks do, sometimes." He was silent for a moment, evidently seeing it all again in his mind's eye. "I've seen machine guns turned on troops in the open – in China – and rebelled against the slaughter. But I would have seen that sub-human mass of hysteria riddled this morning with more joy than I can describe to you. Not because it was – Chris, but because they made me ashamed of being human, of belonging to the same species."
And I think I'll just let that resonate there without further comment.