Book Review: A Shilling for Candles

A Shilling for Candles
By Josephine Tey
TOUCHSTONE/Simon & Schuster, 2007

As you may have guessed from a previous post, I’m rather partial to Josephine Tey. I discovered her earlier this year, and as there are only 11 or so Tey novels out in the wild to be enjoyed, I’m attempting to pace myself so that each can be duly savored.

A Shilling for Candles is an early effort by Tey, and from what I’ve read, is generally considered not to be one of her best. I can’t really comment on that, having only read two other Tey novels. What I can say is that, if this isn’t Tey at her best, then her best must be very good indeed.

Not being able to guess the murderer in the first third of the book is always a plus when it comes to mysteries, but the writing is the real reason I find myself savoring my time with Tey.

Sometimes her writing is funny. Consider Bill’s reaction to hearing that another body has washed up on his beach (p. 12):

“If they want to commit suicide,” he said in his subterranean voice, “why do they have to pick on us? Isn’t there the whole of the south coast?”

“Not a suicide,” Potticary gasped in the intervals of hulloing.

Bill took no notice of him. “Just because the fare to the south coast is more than to here! You’d think when a fellow was tired of life he’d stop being mean about the fare and bump himself off in style. But no! They take the cheapest ticket they can get and strew themselves over our doorstep!”

“Beachy Head get a lot,” gasped the fair-minded Potticary. “Not a suicide, anyway.”

“Course it’s a suicide. What do we have cliffs for? Bulwark of England? No. Just as a convenience to suicides.”

Sometimes her writing is breath-taking, as with this description of Alan Grant entering Canterbury for an early morning interview (p. 188):

In the morning, very early, he [Grant] and Williams left a London not yet awake and arrived in a Canterbury shrouded in the smoke of breakfast.

And sometimes her writing is incisive to the point of poignancy. Consider this pair of quotes.  From p. 29:

All over the world things happened because one woman had lost her life. In California a man telephoned a summons to a girl in Greenwich Village. A Texas airplane pilot did an extra night flight carrying Clay films for rush showing. A New York firm canceled an order. An Italian nobleman went bankrupt: he had hoped to sell her his yacht. A man in Philadelphia ate his first square meal in months, thanks to an “I knew her when” story. A woman in Le Touquet sang because now her chance had come. And in an English cathedral town a man thanked God on his knees.

This quote, which appears at the beginning of Chapter 3, very nicely builds Christine Clay up to be a woman of influence. Someone who matters in the world of the novel. But a scant three paragraphs later, we learn that:

No, as far as anyone could see, no hearts were breaking because Christine Clay was no more. The world dusted off its blacks and hoped for invitations to the funeral.

With those two sentences, Tey very neatly turns the importance of Christine Clay on its head, and we get a glimpse of the emotional wasteland that marred her celebrity existence.

And now it’s your turn. What are you reading this week?


About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book will focus on science, and how parents without a science degree can answer their curious child's questions without enrolling in a college level refresher course. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Eleven-Year-Old at, chatting about books and the writing life at, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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