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"Sin, death, and hell have set their marks on him,
And all their ministers attend on him."
-William Shakespeare, Richard III, Act I, Scene III
Richard III is one of history’s most notorious villains. Thanks in large part to Shakespeare’s play, he is known as a remorseless usurper who murdered his young nephews, the “princes in the tower,” so that he could become King. He was King for less than two years, but he remains one of the more memorable characters from British history.
This is not an open-and-shut case. The “Ricardian” contingent, still active as the Richard III Society, thinks Richard got a raw deal. His fame comes from a play written during the reign of the Tudor Elizabeth I, based on work by Thomas More, who served the Tudor Henry VIII. The Tudors, they argue, had a vested interest in showing Richard in the worst possible light. After all, the first Tudor King, Henry VII, came to the throne after defeating Richard in battle. Richard’s defenders hold that he was falsely accused of ordering the murders, suffering an unfair blot on his reputation that has lasted for several hundred years.
Josephine Tey presents the pro-Richard arguments in an unusual way. Published in 1951, the novel is set in the first part of the 20th century. Alan Grant, an inspector from Scotland Yard, was injured while pursuing a suspect. He is laid up in the hospital for weeks recovering from his injuries. Bored out of his gourd, he is looking for something to occupy him. It comes in the form of a picture, a print of this painting of King Richard III:
Grant studies the painting and thinks a guy with such a lovable face just couldn’t have done those terrible things (and given his background as a detective, Grant knows faces). With the help of a friend who acts as a research assistant, he “investigates” the case, ultimately finding Richard innocent, with his successor Henry VII as the real culprit.
It’s a unique way to present this centuries-old mystery, but unfortunately it often comes off as contrived. This isn’t really a novel in the usual sense; it’s a vehicle for presenting a historical argument. There’s no real action, just Grant having conversations with people about Richard, often bringing out the information through awkwardly obvious question-and-answer sessions with his friend. He makes a good point about the simplified and often unsupported history presented in the school textbooks he reads, but much of his discussion involves setting up and knocking down straw men.
In the story, Grant suffers from the same problem that has made Richard so controversial for historians - there just isn’t a lot of solid evidence. We are left to rely on the accounts of people who lived at the time or just afterward. Determining Richard’s guilt tends to come down to which of the often heavily biased sources you believe.
The crux of Grant’s argument seems to be that Richard was actually a pretty good guy. He passed progressive legislation in Parliament, he wasn’t particularly vengeful to the opposition after taking power (though his Woodville in-laws might have disagreed), he didn’t try to make his bastard son heir to the throne, and lots of people said good things about him. Above all, “good sense was his ruling characteristic. Good sense and family feeling” (p. 190). This version of Richard is almost suspiciously saintly, especially given the usurping tendencies of so many of his Plantagenet forbears.
Tey’s approach to analyzing one of history’s great mysteries is imaginative, even when not completely successful. Anti-Ricardians won’t be convinced, and those looking for a more traditional mystery may be disappointed, but for those of us who find the mystery fascinating in its own right, it’s always interesting to get another take on it.