Long ago, in what now seems like another lifetime, I read a lot of Josephine Tey's books and admired her clever plots and superb writing. Last year, I reacquainted myself with her writing by rereading my favorite book of hers, The Daughter of Time. It gave me an appetite for reading more.
When I was reading her books in the past, to the best of my recollection, I never read this one. And I think I would have remembered for it is a devilishly clever tale.
It's the fourth in her series of books featuring Inspector Grant. This time he is sent to the remote English village of Salcott St Mary to investigate the disappearance of a young man.
Leslie Searle was a uniquely attractive man who was an ultra-fashionable portrait photographer from America. He was famous for taking pictures of actors and actresses, including some of Hollywood's big stars. He was talented and so good looking that he turned heads wherever he went.
But why did he go to this backwater village?
He claimed a connection to a man, now dead, who was a particular friend of one of the villagers. As he introduced himself, the villagers were completely charmed by him and accepted him in and invited him to be a guest in one of the country homes. Soon he was firmly ensconced.
He teams up with one of the local celebrities, a writer and radio personality, to write a book about the river that runs through the village. The local person will do the writing and he will take pictures to illustrate. They plan to canoe down the river and camp by it every night, but shortly after they begin their adventure, one night Leslie Searle disappears without a trace.
There is no sign of foul play and no body found. There seem to be no clues as to what could have happened, but attention focuses on the river. Was he murdered and thrown into the river? Did he accidentally fall into the river and drown? Did he deliberately jump into the river to commit suicide? Or was he kidnapped by some unknown party? The river is dragged repeatedly but no body and no evidence is found.
Then, a young boy out fishing brings up a shoe that is identified as Searle's, but nothing else is found.
Inspector Grant proceeds methodically with his investigation but is making no headway. He's given up and is pursuing other cases, when suddenly a lightbulb goes off over his head. He has that ah-ha moment that helps him to see what might have happened and why. As Tey told us in that other book of hers, truth is the daughter of time, and sometimes it takes time and distance to be able to see the truth.
The mystery is complicated and it is not one that your typical armchair detective - of whom I count myself one - will readily solve, and yet, once the solution is explained by Grant, as we look back over the book, we see that all the clues were there. Tey has given us all the information we needed but she has camouflaged it so well that it was not readily apparent.
This is not in any way a traditional mystery. The mystery is hardly even the main point, but rather it is an exploration of psychology and personalities, identity and gender. It is, in fact, a literary mystery, full of unforgettable characters, an intricate plot, and a wonderful use of language. It is classical Tey, a thoroughly diverting and delicious read.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars