One of the things fiction readers love is something Stephen King described as “pulling aside the curtain”. Grisham fans get a peek at the lives of lawyers because that’s the world their author had known before he picked up a pen. Val McDermid and Patricia Cornwell delight devotees with their stories of police and forensic detection because, as former crime journalists, they knew the turf. But it takes someone like Josephine Tey to pull aside the curtain on that most nefarious tribe – the writers – and give readers an eyeball into the world of professional scribblers. To Love and Be Wise may be sixty-seven years old but when it comes to describing the workings of a writer’s community, this story feels like a vat of fresh, hot, gossip.
The plot is simple: Leslie Searle, an American photographer, has gone missing. Since Leslie Searle is a celebrated photographer, no one is surprised he was staying at Salcott St. Mary, an English-Village-turned-Artist-Colony, when he disappeared. What is striking is how this unassuming, interesting, attractive young man managed to upset every creative mind within its borders!
It isn’t enough for Toby Tullis, that imperious and pompous playwright, that the young and attractive Mr. Searle isn’t familiar with his (Toby’s) work or his house. Even worse, Searle’s not impressed when they were mentioned! Silas Weekly, that third-rate imitator of D. H. Lawrence, might loathe Searle on principle (Weekly hates anything not ugly or covered in muck) and Serge Ratoff might despise him as a “middle-west Lucifer” but even harmless, sweet, romance writer, Lavinia Fitch feels disturbed by Leslie Searle’s presence. In the middle of dictating her latest best-selling Harlequin story (Think the late Barbara Cartland) Lavinia wonders if Searle isn’t perhaps, a little mad. Still, Walter Whitmore is the writer with the “Most Likely Suspect” award. That chronicler of rural English life was the last person actually seen with Searle, seen having an argument with the photographer. Now Searle is missing, everyone has a motive, and Scotland Yard is moving in.
Alan Grant, Josephine Tey’s fictional detective, travels to this village that’s a British cross between Martha’s Vinyard and Yaddo to figure out which writer put the poison pen to Searle. We follow Grant through his interviews and get a “behind-the-scenes” gander at the spots where writers work or malinger. It doesn’t matter that these authors are fictional characters themselves. There’s a ring of truth in all of their scenes.
There should be. When Josephine Tey published To Love and Be Wise, she’d been a successful author and playwright for more than two decades. She knew the literary and theatrical worlds as well as the major players in them. And, by all accounts, she liked to keep them at a distance. Art, as work, needs to be taken seriously but it’s hard to look at some artists for long without laughing. Without ever giving the game away, or leaving herself open to libel, Tey makes it clear she understands this world and how silly its inhabitants can be.
So, if you are in the late dregs of winter and longing for warmth and sunlight, imagine yourself in Salcott St Mary. Come watch the artists at play. You’ll have fun. Just stay away from the river, especially if you’ve irritated one of the locals. We wouldn’t want you to disappear.