Mention the name Elizabeth MacKintosh at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, say, or Bloody Scotland – or, indeed, any other event where fans of noir gather to talk plot twists and big reveals – and you’ll likely be met with blank stares and puzzled looks. And this despite her being arguably the first (and some say the finest) Scottish female crime writer.

The recognition factor may be higher in the Highland town where MacKintosh spent most of her life and where she wrote all her novels sitting at the kitchen table or in the garden shed. But not by much. Even throwing out book titles won’t help. To Love And Be Wise, anyone? How about The Franchise Affair, The Daughter Of Time or A Shilling For Candles?

If there’s a trivia nerd or a film buff in the company, those last two might jog memories as the penny starts to drop. Was she using a pseudonym, perhaps? Didn’t Alfred Hitchcock do something? Wasn’t there some kind of famous list?

Answers: she was, he did, there is.

First, the list. In 1990, the UK Crime Writers’ Association published a now-celebrated rundown of the 100 Top Crime Novels Of All Time. Nestled in the number one spot, ahead of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – and well ahead of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and the grand-daddy of the detective novel, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone – you’ll find The Daughter Of Time, published in 1951. The Franchise Affair, from 1948, is at 11.

As for Hitchcock, he filmed A Shilling For Candles as Young And Innocent in 1937, barely a year after the novel had been published. Along with his 1936 film Sabotage and 1938’s The Lady Vanishes it proved enough of a calling card for Hollywood to come knocking. By July 1938 he was in Los Angeles readying his first project for legendary producer David O Selznick: an adaptation of Rebecca starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier which would go on to win two Oscars.

The Elizabeth MacKintosh question is a trick one, of course, because the woman born on July 25 1896 and raised in an Inverness fruit shop did indeed write under a pseudonym: Josephine Tey (pictured below). But even learning that may cause some head scratching. Although famous enough in her lifetime, particularly in her early career when she wrote plays as well as novels, there’s no doubt her star has slipped since her death in 1952 aged just 55.

Aiming to put her back on the pedestal where they think she belongs are Inverness-based author Jennifer Morag Henderson, whose 2015 biography Josephine Tey: A Life was re-published last year to mark the 125th anniversary of its subject’s birth, and publishers Penguin. They have just re-issued a slew of Tey’s novels with new introductions by Tana French, Kate Mosse and Alexander McCall Smith.

For Mosse, Tey is quite simply one of the greatest crime writers of the 20th century as well as one of the most overlooked, a shape-shifting author who loved history and whose subtle, complex novels dip into ideas about identity and disguise. For Tana French, author of the Dublin Murder Squad series, she asks important questions about media bias and qualifications for victimhood. For Alexander McCall Smith her skill is her genre fluidity, the way she expertly turns a police procedural into a work of historical fiction. Or is it the other way round?

Joining the chorus of acclaim are fellow crime writers such as Richard Osman, Anthony Horowitz and Val McDermid, who also wrote the introduction to Henderson’s biography and who describes Tey as “the most interesting of the great female writers of the Golden Age.”

Henderson herself, meanwhile, has been instrumental in a campaign to mount a Blue Plaque on the wall of the former fruit shop in Castle Street in Inverness which once housed the MacKintosh family business. Given the green light in June, it’s expected to be finally placed on the building next month. And if you happen to wander into the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh this month you’ll find Pen Names, a new exhibition which has a section on Tey and which is based around themes such as gender, privacy and reputation.

The Herald: Jennifer Morag Henderson with the Josephine Tey Blue Plaque due to be mounted in InvernessJennifer Morag Henderson with the Josephine Tey Blue Plaque due to be mounted in Inverness (Image: Newsquest)

“She’s famous and not famous at the same time,” explains Henderson. “When I tell people I’ve written a biography of her they either ask me politely who she is or grab my arms and say they’ve read everything she’s ever written.”

In her day to day life in Inverness, Tey was deeply private. She didn’t indulge in self-promotion and you certainly wouldn’t have found her on anything as showy as a book tour. There are few photographs of her, she corresponded little (though Henderson did turn up some letters between her and crime queen Dorothy L Sayers) and her life was so compartmentalised that there were mourners at her funeral who had never even met each other.

“Because she was in Inverness, she wasn’t engaging with the London literary scene but also she wasn’t very linked in with the Scottish literary Renaissance which was happening at the time,” says Henderson. “She was an exact contemporary of Neil Gunn who was also in Inverness, but she didn’t fit in with that scene and didn’t have the same political views.”

Although The Franchise Affair and 1949 novel Brat Farrar were filmed in 1950 and 1963 respectively, and Tey’s 1932 play Richard Of Bordeaux gave its star John Gielgud his first West End smash, she’s still best known today for The Daughter Of Time.

Featuring her long-serving detective hero Alan Grant, it finds the Scotland Yard Inspector laid up in hospital with a broken leg and given a cold case to investigate by a mischievous actress friend: the disappearance and probable murder some time in 1483 of the so-called Princes in the Tower, the young sons of Edward IV. History has long placed the dastardly deed at the feet of their wicked uncle Richard III, Shakespeare’s black-hearted and hump-backed villain. Tey, through Grant, re-investigates what is one of the most infamous episodes of English history – and comes to some very startling conclusions about the alleged culprit.

Already an unusual premise for a crime novel, The Daughter Of Time had a remarkable effect on what’s known as Ricardian studies too. Winston Churchill, very much in the anti-Richard III camp, referred to Tey’s book in his four-volume history of Britain when he wrote: “It will take many ingenious books to raise the issue to the dignity of a historical controversy.”

It did just that though. The Daughter Of Time had an energising effect on the Richard III Society, founded in 1924 as The Fellowship Of The White Boar but very much an eccentric and minority affair until Tey and her novel came along. Fast forward half a century and the Society has branches all over the world. Thanks in part to the efforts of its Scottish president, Philippa Langley, it was a leading player in the eventual discovery and exhumation of Richard III’s body in a car park in Leicester in 2012. And, as luck would have it, that story comes to the big screen next month with the release of The Lost King, a film about the hunt for Richard’s body. Written by Steve Coogan and directed by Stephen Frears it stars Sally Hawkins as Langley and Coogan as her husband, John. But would any of it have happened without Josephine Tey? Unlikely.

Richard III’s reputation was traduced for half a millennium before fresh eyes were laid on it and his story retold by fresh hands. Elizabeth MacKintosh, the fruit shop owner’s daughter from Inverness, never suffered that fate. But hers is a name and a reputation we would still do well to remember and to burnish.

The Daughter Of Time, The Franchise Affair and To Love And Be Wise are out now (Penguin, £8.99); Josephine Tey: A Life by Jennifer Morag Henderson is published by Sandstone Press (£14.99); Pen Names runs at the National Library of Scotland until April 29.  

Read more in this series:
Hidden Gems: Scottish women writers worth a fresh look