I am, of course, an admirer of many of the great British fictional detectives: Morse, Dalziel and Pascoe, Inspector Alan Banks, Miss Marple and Poirot, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, Miss Silver… But much has been said about these characters (I reserve the right to say more myself!) and I’d like to spend a bit of time on some of the secondary or even momentary characters that I really enjoy.
In Josephine Tey’s golden age mystery A Shilling for Candles the character of Erica Burgoyne appears on only about 40 of the novel’s 238-odd pages. Despite her limited time on camera it’s Erica that always comes to mind when I think of this book.
It isn’t that I didn’t enjoy the story as a whole, I did, or that I don’t like Tey’s main character Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant, I do, it’s just that sometimes a secondary character grabs you from the moment they arrive on the page and suddenly you find that you’re reading for that character — waiting impatiently for them to show up again despite the fact that there may be absolutely no plot consistent reason for their presence!
Erica is the seventeen year old daughter of the Chief Constable in the county where Inspector Grant is on a case. She enters the story over 40 pages in:
“The door breezed open, after the sketchiest of knocks, and in the middle of the floor stood a small, skinny child of sixteen in shabby tweeds, her dark head hatless and very untidy.”
She gets me right away – of course I do have a soft spot for tomboys and characters who don’t seem to care what other people think about them.
She gets peripherally involved with the case because she thinks that the handsome prime suspect couldn’t possibly have committed the murder. Not, refreshingly, because she’s been won over by his good looks, but because she thinks (quite dispassionately) that he’s too much of a wimp!
The three short chapters in the middle of the book where she conducts her own small investigation is my favourite part of the novel.
I’ll admit that Tey’s mysteries, including this one, are not ones that I can totally immerse myself in. The world only fades away in sections (like the ones featuring Erica) and there are the inevitable class, race and gender ideas that snag for me – these books aren’t contemporary novels set in the 1930s – 1950s, they were actually written and published during that time. Nevertheless, I think that all of her novels are very well worth a look for anyone who likes their mysteries of the British and/or less bloody (at least on camera!) variety. Or really for anyone who likes good writing and great characterization. Josephine Tey isn’t considered one of the great golden age crime novelists for nothing and Erica isn’t the only character who is so wonderfully and skillfully realized.
If you’d like to know more about Josephine Tey (real name Elizabeth MacKintosh and also a noted playwright), or if you already know her work and enjoy it, you might want to check out Nicola Upson who has created a mystery series where the main character is Josephine Tey.
I wish someone would make Erica the main character of a mystery series — if she’s that clever at seventeen she should make a very fine grown-up sleuth!
Closing note: I haven’t seen it, but apparently A Shilling for Candles was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent (1937). The movie is apparently quite different and focuses almost entirely on the prime suspect (the handsome young man) and Erica Burgoyne! Perhaps the scriptwriters were as taken with her as I was.
Closing Note 2: Okay, I’ve just watch the film. What can I say? I like Hitchcock but in terms of a comparison to the novel… It is very different; far more romance and comedy than mystery. I definitely prefer the Erica of the novel.
Has anyone else seen it? How do you think it compares to the book?