A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey

A Shilling for Candles My first read for this year’s RIP event is this 1936 mystery from Josephine Tey. It’s only the second book I’ve read by Tey – the other was The Daughter of Time, in which Inspector Alan Grant attempts to solve the mystery of Richard III and the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower from his hospital bed. A Shilling for Candles also features Alan Grant but this time he is investigating the murder of Christine Clay, an actress whose body is found washed up on the beach on the south coast of England.

At first it seems that the cause of Christine’s death is either suicide or a tragic accident, but when a coat button is found tangled in her hair it becomes obvious that someone else must have been involved. Suspicion immediately falls upon Robin Tisdall, a young man who has been staying with Christine in her cottage near the beach, but Grant soon has a whole list of other suspects. Could it have been Christine’s rich, aristocratic husband? The American songwriter with whom she is thought to be having an affair? What about her fellow actresses, who could be jealous of Christine’s success, or Lydia Keats, the eccentric astrologer who casts celebrity horoscopes? And then, of course, there’s Christine’s estranged brother, Herbert, who has been left “a shilling for candles” in her will.

I was intrigued by the mystery and enjoyed getting to know the characters; my favourite was Erica Burgoyne, the Chief Constable’s teenage daughter who has an encounter with one of the suspects in the middle of the novel and is inspired to do some investigating of her own. I also liked Tey’s portrayal of life as a celebrity – particularly her descriptions of the negative side of fame and the difficulties famous people can experience in trying to keep their private lives private.

However, I have to confess that I found this book disappointing overall. There just seemed to be too much going on: too many red herrings and too much time spent developing storylines that didn’t really go anywhere. I thought the plot lacked structure and the final solution of the mystery seemed to come out of nowhere – unless I missed an important clue, which is entirely possible! I’m wondering whether the problems I had with this novel could be due to the fact that it’s one of Tey’s earliest; I thought The Daughter of Time (1951) was much better than this one, so maybe her writing improved over the years. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her books at some point, so I’ll be able to find out.

If you’ve read anything by Josephine Tey, I’d love to know which of her other books you would recommend. Also, has anyone seen Young and Innocent, the Alfred Hitchcock film based on this book?

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26 thoughts on “A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey

  1. Pam Thomas says:

    Josephine Tey is one of the greatest ‘classic crime’ novelists, up there with Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham and of course Agatha Christie (but imho she’s much better than Christie, her characters are fully rounded human beings rather than ciphers who murder or are murdered). She had a very interesting life, effectively split into two completely different compartments: in Scotland she was spinster Elizabeth McKintosh, dutiful carer for her ageing father, while in London she was the playwright Gordon Daviot or the novelist Josephine Tey, famous and feted, who counted John Gielgud amongst her close friends (I’ve just read a very good biography of her, by Jennifer Morag Henderson). Over her sadly brief writing life she produced only twelve novels, all of which I’ve read. Six feature her detective Alan Grant, while the others include ‘Brat Farrar’ (my personal favourite), ‘The Privateer’, which is a historical novel about Henry Morgan, and ‘The Franchise Affair’, which is regarded as a classic of the genre. She died in 1952, but her books have aged remarkably well, and she’s well worth seeking out. Highly recommended (and I’m not the only one – we have several of her books in our library, and they’re always being borrowed).

    • Helen says:

      Based on what I’ve read so far I still prefer Agatha Christie, but maybe that will change once I’ve read more of Tey’s work. I should probably have left this particular book until later but it was the only one I actually had a copy of (other than The Daughter of Time). I’m looking forward to reading some of her others, especially Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair.

  2. whatmeread says:

    I haven’t read very much Tey, but I think I liked Brat Ferrar best. I don’t think it’s an Inspector Grant mystery. And The Singing Sands was pretty good, because it spent some time with Grant’s family, which I liked. Aside from The Daughter of Time, I’ve only read one other, which I didn’t like so much.

    • margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide says:

      I’ve read Brat Farrar, Daughter of Time and The Franchise affair and enjoyed all of them, but I wasn’t aware of the others – definitely off to seeking them out.

  3. kathyh256 says:

    The Daughter of Time is without doubt her most famous book but I prefer Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair. The Franchise Affair is also a rather enjoyable film. I have seen Young and Innocent which is a very early Hitchcock. Not a “must see” but quite entertaining if you are in the mood for slightly clunky early 30s drama. It’s what I would call a “Sunday afternoon film”.

    To be honest A Shilling for Candles is probably the weakest of her mystery novels

    • Helen says:

      If this is the weakest of her books, I’m pleased I’ve read it and can now look forward to reading the better ones! Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair will be at the top of my list as everyone seems to be recommending those two.

  4. Margaret @ BooksPlease says:

    I thought it was messy – a bit all over the place, I much preferred The Daughter of Time. I also enjoyed The Franchise Affair and Miss Pym Disposes, which is not a conventional crime fiction novel. It’s a psychological study focussing on the characters, their motivation and analysis of facial characteristics. It looks at the consequences of what people do and say and, as Miss Pym discovers who she thinks is responsible, it also looks at how much a person should intervene, and it has such a good twist at the end.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, ‘messy’ is a good way to describe this book. It hasn’t put me off reading more of Tey’s books, though. Miss Pym Disposes sounds interesting – I’ll have to look out for that one.

  5. Judy Krueger says:

    It really bugs me when the solution to a mystery seems to come out of nowhere. I have not read this author though I have always heard of her. I liked the comment about her having a double life!

    • Helen says:

      I prefer mysteries where we are given enough information to at least attempt to solve it for ourselves! If you’re going to try Josephine Tey I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one.

  6. Anbolyn says:

    Oh, I just bought this! I didn’t know much about it but I have also read The Daughter of Time featuring Alan Grant and enjoyed it so want to read more of the Grant series. It sounds good even if it was one of her mediocre books, which seems to be the case. I’ll probably read it over the winter sometime. I agree with Margaret above about Miss Pym Disposes. It’s a very interesting, morally complex novel and I loved it.

    • Helen says:

      It’s not as good as The Daughter of Time, but I’m sure you’ll still enjoy it. It’s worth reading just for the character of Erica Burgoyne. I really like the sound of Miss Pym Disposes!

    • Helen says:

      I’m hoping this was just the wrong book at the wrong time for me and that I’ll enjoy the rest of her novels. I’m looking forward to The Franchise Affair and am pleased to hear you were impressed by The Man in the Queue too.

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