A Shilling for Candles (1936) by Josephine Tey

According to my Goodreads list, I gave this book 5/5 when I first read it. Yet I’d completely forgotten what happens in it, even the culprit. Our nominated corpse comes up early in the story, within a matter of pages, the film actress Christine Clay, who is found washed up on a beach. Initially it is assumed to be suicide or accidental, but it is not long before it becomes murder. She had been hiding away from friends and media at a nearby cottage, though she had taken on lodger, the very broke Robert Tisdall, who had just spent all of his inheritance. Bit of a wastrel and lazy individual, he has a fairly ropey story as to what he was doing around the time of the murder; namely stealing and then returning her car. So it is not surprising that the police are after him, especially once the will is read. Yet there are others who also fit the bill for murderer: her explorer husband, a song writer and even theatrical rivals.

Overall Thoughts

Tey is good at opening her novels and I enjoyed how she slowly reveals the initial crime. Her attention to even small characters is apparent in these opening pages and I was particularly struck by how a coast guard cynical attitude towards the body is described:

‘Bill clicked his tongue against his front teeth, and jerked his head back. A gesture which express with eloquence and economy the tiresomeness of circumstances, the unreasonableness of human beings who get themselves drowned, and his own satisfaction in expecting the worst of life and being right.’

The social background of the book is also well established in the opening, with a tension of opinions between the younger and older generations and the book even interweaves a thread on anti-Semitism, with one character decrying that: ‘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 that tolerance.’ In addition, there is also an interesting subplot involving the Chief Constable daughter, though I don’t feel it was made full use of.

Despite these more positive points though I have to admit that this is my first re-read, where I have been wondering what I loved about it so much the first time around, as unfortunately this time the story didn’t really grab my attention. I think the investigation’s try try try again approach didn’t work for me, and equally in some ways this was rather a bitty plot, which affected the characterisation. Don’t forget the last minute out of nowhere solution as well. So not hugely satisfying. Has anyone else had this experience, where a re-read is not as good as you remember it?

Rating: 3.75/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Death by Drowning

17 comments

  1. I’m only admitting this here because I love you, Kate, and I love the picture of the goat. I think my ability to read has been affected by my phone and other technology, and it has cut my patience in half. The first time I read Ellery Queen’s The Greek Coffin Mystery I was enthralled. I was also twelve. I reread it a few years ago, and while I still found it clever, I also found it a bit tedious. Tastes change!

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    • Yeah Newton is a great kid, though not quite so little anymore. You are right about tastes changing, but my change seems to have happened within about 5 years or so. It could be the reading mood I am in at the moment though. Well done on reading TGCM twice – probably qualify for some kind of medal.

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  2. Like miost of Tey’s work, I still enjoy re-reading this, despite some flaws. By the way, is your copy published by Pan? I only ask because my Pan edition also misdates the original publication as 1953 – it was actually pre-war, I think 1936.

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  3. I reread this fairly recently, and I liked it a lot. I don’t like try try try again plots, but it must not have bothered me with this one. And I liked the subplot with the Chief Constable daughter, although I agree that not enough was done with it. I would like to reread all the Tey books but I also want to do more Allingham rereads first.

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  4. Thanks for the review – I’ve only read one novel by Tey to date, and I guess I won’t be rushing to try this one next. 😅

    I don’t tend to re-read mystery novels, but the Christie novels I’ve re-read have deepened my appreciation of her craft. I find the second read interesting, in terms of seeing how she constructs her puzzles and directs the readers’ gaze at critical junctures. She truly is a master of the form. I’ve also re-read “Problem of the Green Capsule”, and enjoyed the second round more than the first.

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    • haha yeah Tey is never going to be an author for you! I think some authors withstand re-reading more than others. Christie and Sayers are both ones I have enjoyed re-reading. Not tried it with Carr yet. But I think Tey is not doing so well on the second reading front.

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      • As for Sayers, if I ever reread her she has nowhere to go but up. 0/5 for Nine Tailors! Advertise and Herrings were marginally better. I am currently rereading a bit of Carr. Unlike many here, while I think him a master craftsman I also think him quite a poor writer. The Judas Window held up very well indeed. Constant Suicides wasn’t as good as I remembered, but still about 4/5. The Peacock Feathers seemed too contrived and outre the second time, but parts of it still impress. So far then not too bad a record for Carr.

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      • Nine Tailors and Five Red Herrings are my least favourites and would not be ones I would ever read again. However Murder Must Advertise is one of my favourites. If you do give Sayers another go try I did write a post ages about some of hers to try:
        https://crossexaminingcrime.wordpress.com/2016/02/09/tuesday-night-bloggers-dorothy-l-sayers-5-to-try-and-1-to-avoid/
        Not done any Carr re-reading yet so not sure how I will fare with him.

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  5. I can re-read Christie any time and still do. But it’s always risky to revisit books one enjoyed when younger. It’s not a mystery novel but when I was about fourteen I read Wheatley’s ‘The Devil Rides Out’ and thought it was brilliant. I picked it up again last year, looking forward to enjoying it again. It was unreadable!

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  6. As far as mysteries go, the biggest disappointment for me was Ellery Queen’s Greek Coffin Mystery. 5/5 to 2/5. How can a book change so much in only 38 years?

    Dropping a bit is normal I think, especially for mysteries. You can never recapture surprise, you have a larger base of comparison, and at least some of the time a first read happens in the context of a binge, which entails an exaggerated enthusiasm. Even top notch stuff like Murder on the Orient Express falls a wee bit short of memories the second time.

    A very few books went up the second time. The first time I read Hammett’s Red Harvest I thought it about 3/5. The second time 5/5. The third time closer to 4/5 but the last time, this year, 5/5. In general Hammett(the best writer in crime IMO) holds up wonderfully, and Chandler and Ross MacDonald almost as well. Westlake’s Bitter Lemon Score might also have been better the second time.

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    • Yes I guess it depends how much your enjoyment was based on the surprise element, as I think if the novel gives you other things to love about it then knowing the surprise going into the re-read doesn’t detract too much from it.

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