Sunday, April 11, 2021

The 1936 Club: A Shilling for Candles


After missing out on the 1956 club in 2020 because I can’t read a calendar apparently, I am really glad I managed to both READ a book and POST about it for the 1936 Club hosted by bloggers Karen at Kaggsy and Thomas at Stuck in a Book I was super pleased to find I actually owned a copy of A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey which was first published in the UK in 1936. I have now read all but one of Tey’s mysteries. On the whole, her books are in my opinion a little hit and miss, but so far all have been well worth reading, even if every title didn’t always blow my socks off.  If you like Golden Age crime fiction, Tey should be on your reading list for sure. 

In the opening chapter of A Shilling for Candles, a man taking an early morning walk on the beach finds the body of woman in a bright green bathing dress who has clearly drowned. He hurries to the nearest coastguard station to phone the police. Unfortunately suicides are not uncommon in this particular area of costal Kent, but eventually the police determine that the woman drowned most likely at the hands of a person or persons unknown based upon a couple of small details about the body. The police also determine that the woman was renting a nearby cottage and that the obvious suspect is her “house guest”, a young man named Tisdall whom she impulsively invited to stay with her when she discovered him about to pawn literally the clothes off his back in London a few days earlier. It turns out that the drowned woman was the famous movie star Christine Clay and that generous, impulsive action of helping a person in need, such as the house guest, was characteristic of her. Who would want to kill her? Was Tisdall? Or her explorer husband who was allegedly out of the country at the time of death? Or was it the composer Jacob Harmer, who was working with her on her current film and who wagging tongues rumor was her lover?

I enjoyed reading it this book. I gulped in down over the course of two days, which was very satisfying. However, I didn’t think this is Tey’s best mystery. The resolution was a little out of left field for my tastes. But up until that point, I enjoyed the investigation along with its obfuscation and red herrings.

There are quite a few colorful characters in the book. There is a really awful journalist, Jammy Hopkins, dogging Grant’s heels. The readers are introduced to Grant’s friend and connection to the theater world, actress Marta Hallard who will feature in at least two future books. Grant is an atypical lead detective when compared to literary detectives created by Tey’s contemporaries like Christy, March, or Allingham; he isn’t in and of himself very interesting or quirky. Not that this detracts from the books, however. It is just something I’ve noticed. 

The real highlight for me in A Shilling for Candles was the eccentric Erica Burgoyne, the daughter of the local Chief Constable, who does some mighty good sleuthing in the book.  Tey could have easily spun off a series featuring teenage Erica solving crime, having romantic escapades and cracking wise. 

Interestingly enough, Tey calls out class consciousness front and center when Grant finds out the husband of the victim is a lord and is loath to question him in a confrontational manner. I found it noteworthy that Grant recognizes this behavior and knows it’s not “right” and yet, it’s how one is expected to behave. On the other hand, one of the characters is Jewish and Tey uses some weird backhanded comments on this as an ethnicity which is not atypical for a book published in the 1930s but it is always jarring when I encounter it. 

14 comments:

  1. I haven't heard of this one! Really interesting that she calls out class stuff at a time when that was unusual - and yet clearly had her own blind spots.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Simon! I was a little struck as well by her acknowledging Inspector Grant's reluctance to tread a Lord as a "usual suspect" specifically due to his class. She was an interesting writer for a lot of reasons.

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  2. I love Tey but agree this is not one of her most enthralling (although a weak book from her is still better than most). Interesting observation about Grant - yes, she really makes him almost bland, although he has the potential to be more dynamic. I suppose she didn't want him to detract from the characters in the investigation.

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    1. Thanks for the comment CLM! I think that Tey is interesting as a writer because she had the potential to build any number of her books in to popular Poirot or Miss Marple like series and yet she did not. I will have to find a good biography on her and see if there is any reason for this.

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  3. I haven't read this one myself. Like you, I guess I find Tey a bit and miss, but this one does sound like it would be worth it--and one would never read Golden Age detective stories if you couldn't tolerate the occasional left-field solution...

    There's a bit of casual but jarring Semitic stereotyping expressed in Novel on Yellow Paper, which I've just finished. But Stevie Smith recognizes that people say these sorts of things, and maybe (?) they don't mean a lot by it, but in any case in 1936 it's time to quit it.

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    1. You are all too right in noting that left field solutions are not uncommon in Golden Age detective fiction! Maybe that is part of its charm. I have liked all the Tey books I have read so far, though my favorite is still probably The Daughter of Time.

      Anti-Semitism is all too common and I find it particularly jarring in authors I love and want to perceive as kindly, like Trollope.

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  4. I do like Golden Age crime fiction, and Tey has been on my list of authors I need to read at some point, but I'll have to start with one of her books that my library has...and they don't have this one. They do have The Singing Sands and Miss Pym Disposes, so I'll probably read one of those this summer.

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    1. You can definitely start with any of her books. There is no progression with the Inspector Grant novels, no revelation about backstory or anything. If you do start with Miss Pym Disposes, there is also a really good podcast episode discussing the book in depth on the Backlisted podcast: https://www.backlisted.fm/episodes/133-josephine-tey-miss-pym-disposes .

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  5. Hi Ruthiella, I did read Daughter of Time which I very much enjoyed. A Shilling for Candles sounds interesting too but I know what you mean when the resolution to the mystery comes out of left field. You are introduced to all these suspects but if the killer turns out to be some random person or the motive for the death comes out of left field that can be disappointing to the reader. I am thinking of including a 1936 book this year myself.

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    1. Hi Kathy, I really liked the historical aspects of The Daughter of Time. Before I read it, I didn't know there was major historical dissention about what really happened to the princes in the tower and Richard III's legitimacy as monarch.

      As reese points out above, those left field solutions are maybe to be expected in crime fiction of this era. Still, I like the murderer's motivation to make sense. :D

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  6. I felt exactly the same way as you: a good book but not Tey's best. And Erica was delightful, wasn't she? I wish we had more of her.

    Enjoy your journey through 1936!

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    1. Thansk Cleo. Alas this book will be my only trip into 1936 for this year's club, though I look forward to reading everyone else's posts about what they read.

      Erica really was great. I would have easily read an entire book with her as the main sleuth. I wonder why Tey didn't do this or why her editor did not encourage her to do so.

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  7. I'm interested in this one. The Daughter of Time is one of those books I read decades ago and still think about, but I've only read one other book by Tey.

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  8. I've enjoyed all of her books but there are definitely some that are better than others. I found To Love & Be Wise was one of those hit & misses compares to some of the others. I've been bingeing on Agatha Christie lately. Not writing much though!

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