A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey is her second crime novel. The body of a beautiful woman is found early one morning at a deserted beach. A first it looks like suicide or an accident by drowning until one small item is found that suggests otherwise.
There are two things to say from the outset about this book: one, I thoroughly enjoyed it, not least because of a great cameo of an amateur sleuth in 17 year old Erica Burgoyne; secondly, the constant running commentary on Jewish characters and the 'characteristics' of the Jewish race, both physical and psychological, is frankly disturbing.
The collision of modern liberal sensibilities on race, gender and sexuality, with crime fiction (indeed any fiction) of this era is a constant danger of course, but the hammer, hammer, hammer of the word 'Jew' in A Shilling for Candles is quite remarkable. But what is odder still is that one of the Jewish characters, Jay Harmer, is given the chance to bite back at this character assassination.
'Oh yes, you don't have to say it all again. I know it by heart. England a country of complete tolerance. She makes no difference between the races. It doesn't matter to an Englishman what creed you believe in or what shade your skin is.' He blew his breath expressively through his teeth. 'Did it ever occur to you inspector, that you're the only people who've really kept us out? Kept us in our place. That's your pet expression, and that describes it. No mixing. No marrying. Infra dig to marry a Jew if he has less than a hundred thousand. And not so hot then. You're the only country in the world where a Jew is unmistakable. A German Jew looks like a German as often as not, a Russian Jew looks like a Russian. The countries have taken them into themselves. But an English Jew looks like a Jew. And you call it tolerance.'
What to make of that? Does Tey share the prejudices about the 'smouldering Jew', 'small round faced Jew', thinking that 'Jews rarely have that personal disinterestedness that makes a saviour', that they're 'ill-educated, emotional, ruthless, like so many of his race'? Or, is Tey providing her own commentary here of the hidden prejudices of middle England? Maybe she is throwing the prejudices of middle England right back at her readers. It is certainly true that she makes Inspector Grant reflect on the differences with which he treats his main suspects: the younger son of a peer, and a penniless drifter. The latter he can accuse straight out, and the other he must tread carefully around. I can't believe that comment on Jews making unlikely saviours was not written for the reader to undermine immediately in his or her own head.
Malcom J. Turnbull in his Victims Or Villains: Jewish Images in Classic English Detective Fiction points out that the Jew is often part of the 'readily recognisable supporting characters', as is the tabloid reporter Jammy Hopkins, or the local chief constable. What Tey does with Jason Harmer is to explode him out of the role: he is no longer the comfortable bit part, he is giving Inspector Grant a damn good dressing down. E. M. Forster says in Aspects of the Novel that one of the marks of truly great writers is that they take a two-dimensional supporting character and for a scene, or two, truly expand them. His point is that a moderately good writer can produce a three dimensional lead, but to suddenly make your readers look closely and deeply at a supporting character by providing just a flash of their roundedness, is skill beyond the norm. Is that what Tey is doing here?
It would provide too many spoilers to discuss Harmer's role further, beyond saying that what he is discovered doing and with whom, adds food for thought on what Tey wants us to take away from the novel.
Like most readers of early and mid-twentieth century fiction I have a scale of tolerance for prejudice that gets tighter and tighter the nearer the writer gets to my own age. It would be daft to expect modern attitudes in a book written much more than a decade before I was born. But the relentlessness of the commentary from assorted characters is, as I say, disturbing. I do wonder if, in the end, she was almost forcing an over-dose of bigotry upon her audience, an attempt to make them sick, like forcing someone to smoke packs of cigarettes in quick succession to put them off. Removing the prejudice from the quiet aside or assumption to the machine-gun repetitions of loud cocktail chatter, brings it out into the open where she can let the character Harmer pick off any lingering complacency in the reader, especially when set against the rather nasty set of Christian characters we also encounter. It is they and not the Jewish character who give the novel its damning title. It makes for an interesting if not always comfortable read in this respect, and despite the predominance of racist thought towards Jews in the heads of her characters it is, for these reasons, not at all clear to me that this is an anti-semitic work.
As to the other aspects of the novel, the plot is weak, the conclusion weaker still. The characterisation of the victim Christine Clay, Inspector Grant and young Erica are all marvellous. Grant is thoughtful , Erica delightful, and I'm not being at all original when I say that the picture Tey builds of her victim, after her death, through aside and memory, is quite a remarkable piece of work. Tey works most interestingly on the cusp of things, at the turning points in society. She nails the rise of the celebrity villain in The Franchise Affair just as she spots the change from a horse driven middle class to a motor driven one and explores the power shifts that come with that. Here too in A Shilling for Candles we see the beginning of the end of the deferential police force, the growth of the power of the press and the potential damage of fame or unearned wealth. As always then she is better on criminality and society than she is at constructing a great whodunit. I did enjoy this book though, and will read it again.
Tey's novel was filmed by Hitchcock as Young and Innocent and this, and the novel itself, form the basis of Fear in the Sunlight by Nicola Upson. Reviews of both are coming soon.
Read the review of Fear in the Sunlight here.