Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Triumph of Detective Alan Grant

The Daughter of TimeThe Daughter of Time is the second greatest detective novel ever written. (It's on the internet, it's true now!) Scotland Yard Detective Alan Grant is convalescing in a hospital after breaking his leg by falling through a trap door in a theater, in pursuit of a criminal. In order to help combat the prickles of boredom, Marta, his actress friend, brings him a collection of portrait postcards to examine. Ultimately, it is a portrait of Richard III that draws his attention because, from the face in the picture, Grant expected him to be a judge.
What follows is the story of Grant's investigation of Richard III, aided by an American scholar at the British Museum. Ultimately, Grant concludes that it was much more likely that Henry VI, not Richard III, murdered the princes in the tower. Serious scholars will recognize that Tey is novelizing several major scholarly rehabilitations of Richard III, but that rehabilitation is not really the point of the story.

The Daughter of Time is about how we come to hold beliefs and what we do in the face of information that contradicts them. One of the most revealing discoveries Grant makes is actually in an elementary school text book. On one page, the authors condemn Richard III as England's greatest monster for murdering two children, and on the next they list Henry VII's ruthless elimination of an entire family as though it were all part of normal government bureaucracy. Grant and Carradine (the scholar) also come up with the idea of Tonypandy; a totally fabricated or completely distorted historical event, like the strike in Wales in Tonypandy, the martyrdom of Covenanters in Scotland, and the Boston Massacre, that persist in the cultural memory despite irrefutable contrary proof. Though he never states it this way, Grant discovers that we often prefer the story to the history.

Through it all, Grant demonstrates the clarity of thought, skills in deduction, and adherence to facts that define detective fiction, but that is not his triumph. His greatest moment happens on page 194. Carradine enters completely deflated. “He looked young, and shocked, and bereaved.”

Here's the complete next two paragraphs.
       “Grant watched him in dismay as he crossed the room with his listless uncoordinated walk. There was no bundle of paper sticking out of his mail-sack of a pocket today.
        “Oh, well, thought Grant philosophically; it had been fun while it lasted. There was bound to be a snag somewhere. One couldn't do serious research in that light-hearted manner way and hope to prove anything by it. One wouldn't expect an amateur to walk into the Yard and solve a case that had defeated the pros; so why should he have thought himself smarter than the historians. He had wanted to prove himself that he was right in his face-reading of the portrait; he had wanted to blot out the shame of having put a criminal on the bench instead of in the dock. But he would have to accept his mistake, and like it. Perhaps he had asked for it. Perhaps, in his heart of hearts, he had been growing a little pleased with himself about his eye for faces.”

Emphasis is so totally mine. It's plenty easy to argue about the mechanisms of false belief when you are examining someone else's belief. But the second that lens is turned around all those mechanisms kick in and you have facts, not hearsay, you have certainty, where there is doubt, and your beliefs are grounded in fact and rationale and not in narrative and emotions. In short, the things that make everyone else believe in ridiculous things, make you do it to.

But not Alan Grant. He hasn't even heard the potential argument yet and he is ready to let go of his belief in the face of fact. To make it even more admirable, Grant further admits the limitations of his efforts, saying essentially that you can't just dick around in history and expect to be know more than everybody else. I don't know if there's a more repeated mistake in human consciousness than not seeing the flaws in your own beliefs, and Detective Alan Grant does not make it. And that makes him a hero.


  1. Begs the question: what is the greatest detective novel?

  2. For my money it's The Maltese Falcon.