Josephine Tey and Dick Francis

I had just finished re-reading Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes when I learned of the death of Dick Francis.  While they could not be more different, both are favorites of mine.  Josephine Tey specialized in elegant stories with very little violence and no blood while Dick Francis always had a “tough guy” hero who at some point gets beaten up (or injured somehow) and has to be nursed back to health, usually by the love interest.  Tey wrote only eight mysteries between 1929 (The Man in the Queue) and 1952 (The Singing Sands ).  Francis, on the other hand wrote more than 40 beginning in 1962 with Dead Cert.

Dick Francis was the Queen’s Jockey and famous in British racing circles before he turned to write mysterties.  According to his obituary in the New York Times

…Mr. Francis was already a celebrity in British sporting circles. Named champion jockey of the 1953-54 racing season by the British National Hunt after winning more than 350 races, he was retained as jockey to the queen mother for four seasons and raced eight times in the Grand National Steeplechase.When Devon Loch, the horse he was racing for the queen mother in the 1956 Grand National, collapsed in a spectacular mishap just before he would have won, Mr. Francis feared, as he put it in his autobiography, that he would be remembered as “the man who didn’t win the National.” This setback, along with the accumulated miseries of injuries, forced him into early retirement at the age of 36.

The New York Times published this well known picture of Francis on Devon Loch, the Queen Mother’s horse.

Drawing on his experiences as a jockey and his intimate knowledge of the racetrack crowd — from aristocratic owners to Cockney stable boys — the novel contained all the elements that readers would come to relish from a Dick Francis thriller. There was the pounding excitement of a race, the aura of the gentry at play, the sweaty smells from the stables out back, an appreciation for the regal beauty and unique personality of a thoroughbred — and enough sadistic violence to man and beast to satisfy the bloodthirsty.

Mr. Francis was a formulaic writer, even if the formula was foolproof. He drew the reader into the intimate and remarkably sensual experience of the world of racing. His writing never seemed better than when his jockey-heroes climbed on their mounts and gave themselves up to what he called “the old song in the blood.”

This self-contained world was, of course, a reflection of a broader universe in which themes of winning and losing and courage and integrity have more sweeping meaning. As the critic John Leonard wrote, “Not to read Dick Francis because you don’t like horses is like not reading Dostoyevsky because you don’t like God.”

Tey also created worlds.  Each of her eight mysterties is set in a different world.  Although little is know about Tey (Elizabeth Macintosh), she was born in Inverness and attended a physical training college in Birmingham.  Miss Pym Disposes is set at a similar sort of college where the students (all young women) study to teach phys ed and practice what we would now call physical therapy.

The writer, Natasha Cooper, wrote in a short essay on Tey

Until I started to think about this piece I had always assumed that my devotion to Josephine Tey’s novels had most to do with the age at which I first read them. As an impressionable twelve- or thirteen-year-old I revelled in the gentle, unusually rational decency of her good characters and found the domesticity of her settings appealing. The elegant simplicity of her style makes her work easy to enjoy at any age and some of the novels, particularly Brat Farrar with its predominantly young cast, might well have been written specifically for teenagers.

But once I started to reread some of the novels the other day, I realised that there was more to my delight in her work. Her obsession with the masks people wear and the truths they hide is one that I share. All crime writers must be concerned with the ways in which criminals disguise themselves and are found out by their investigators, but Tey’s interest went beyond that.

…In Miss Pym Disposes she plays with the idea of misread identity in several different ways in the characters of the heroine, an easily mockable spinster who happens to have written a brilliantly successful psychology textbook, and the three physical training students who provide the murderer, victim and chief suspect.Like most of Tey’s villains, Pamela Nash in Miss Pym Disposes is beautiful, successful, adored – and so full of vanity that she cannot conceive of anything (even someone else’s life) being more important than her own wishes…

I also first read Tey as a teenager by discovering Miss Pym and Brat Farrar. 

As the Grumpy Old Bookman said in his 2005 entry

Josephine Tey, the English crime writer, died in 1952; but if you go to Amazon.co.uk and type in her name, you get 172 results; and on Amazon.com you get 109. In other words, the lady is still in print, is still published in a wide variety of formats, still selling, and still being read. That being the case, it is worth having a look at her life and methods in order to see what might be learnt.

So celebrate Dick Francis by picking up one of his books (I particularly like the early ones) and rediscover (or discover) Josephine Tey both are well worth the time.

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