The Daughter of Time

I read The Daughter of Time while traveling so I couldn’t write a proper review of it, but now I’m home and I can write a very meandering reflection about it. I absolutely loved this book, and it brought up something really of interest to me, which is the question of why I find detective stories so compelling, and why some are more compelling than others.

Now, admittedly, different detective stories are great for different reasons. Tommy and Tuppence I love like fluffy romance novels. Nero Wolfe is so many wisecracks and quirks and details. Montalbano I love because of character and description and the famous ridiculous meals, though I’ve really not cared at all about basically any of the plots.1 Graeme Macrae Burnet writes literature, and it’s pointless to critique his work as a whodunnit.2 Higashino writes incredible puzzles. Et cetera.

But on some level, it seems I think that detective stories should be about the detective, and it’s the detective’s curiosity that makes him a detective.

I’ve been told, occasionally as an insult, that I have an “active mind” or a “critical mind.” Usually what the person means is that I always have about a million questions about everything, and that I will take even a commonly accepted fact and smash it against every wall I can find to see if it breaks.3 That, I think, is the core personality trait of a good detective, or in my case, a good researcher. Detectives investigate, and that’s what scholarship is as well.

So what makes The Daughter of Time so great is that it’s kind of the perfect picture of a detective’s mind. Detectives don’t turn off when they’re tied up in bed. They investigate. And the slow way in which that investigation is portrayed in this book is really excellent, in part because Grant can’t just look things up and he is dependent on others for resources that may or may not be “telling the truth.” It’s very much reasoning from limited resources, and it’s done at a pace that I think would be maddening if you knew a lot about Richard III, but because I knew literally nothing about Richard III I could more or less just play along.

I think in terms of writing, what I’d like most to take from this book is the application of detective skills to all aspects of a character’s life. You kind of get this in a way when, for example, Sherlock Holmes takes a hat and just deduces things from it because he’s bored. But I think smaller, more personal details of borderline destructive curiosity in a story would really add something to a character. Especially if they have no payoff whatsoever. Sherlock Holmes, if I remember correctly, ends up solving a mystery that way. But it’s the “investigation for the joy of investigation” aspect that I think it’s important to highlight, and that is somewhat undermined when there’s a big payoff at the end.

In Detective Tara’s life, for example, I recently got a carton of eggs and the first egg had a double yolk. Then the next day the next egg did too. Naturally, to expedite this process of discovery, without being wasteful I was forced to make quiche. All but one. All but one were mutant twin eggs. So of course I had all these questions about what causes doubled yolks, how eggs are collected and packaged, and so on, and so one…

Something like that, I think, would make such a good subplot in a story.

Anyway, here’s the portrait of Richard III I saw at the Portrait Gallery.

  1. I actually don’t even think I remember the mysteries really. I remember they drove a car in one of them, but mostly I remember details about Livia and the food and Sicily. This, by the way, is the source of my great obsession with going to Sicily.
  2. I also just have a huge writer crush on him and will accept no criticism.
  3. I am probably the most gullible person on the planet, so this is an approach to existence I’ve had to learn the hard way.