MacKintosh was born in Inverness, the eldest of three daughters of Colin MacKintosh and Josephine (née Horne). She attended Inverness Royal Academy and then, in 1914, Anstey Physical Training College in Erdington, a suburb of Birmingham. She taught physical training at various schools in England and Scotland and during her vacations worked at a convalescent home in Inverness as a VAD. In 1923, she returned to Inverness permanently to care for her invalid mother, and stayed after her mother's death that year to keep house for her father.
The curriculum for "physical training" included much more than athletics. Tey used her school experience in Miss Pym Disposes when describing the subjects taught at the school, and the types of bruises and other injuries sustained by the pupils. When she graduated, Tey worked in a physiotherapy clinic in Leeds, then taught in schools, first in Nottinghamshire, then in Oban, where she was injured. A boom in the gymnasium fell on her face. Tey repurposed this incident as a method of murder in Miss Pym Disposes.
While caring for her father she began her career as a writer. Her first published work was in the Westminster Gazette in 1925, under the name Gordon Daviot. She continued publishing verse and short stories in the Westminster Review, the Glasgow Herald and the Literary Review.
Her first novel, Kif: An Unvarnished History, was well received at the time with good reviews, a sale to America, and a mention in The Observer's list of Books of the Week. Three months later, her first mystery novel, The Man in the Queue, was published by Benn, Methuen. It was awarded the Dutton Mystery Prize when published in America. This is the first appearance of her detective, Inspector Alan Grant. It would be some years before she wrote another mystery.
MacKintosh's real ambition had been to have a play of hers running in the West End. Her play, Richard of Bordeaux, was produced in 1932 at the New Theatre under the Daviot pseudonym. She stated she was inspired by John Gielgud's performance in Hamlet and by the Royal Tournament. Tey had an excellent knowledge of military tactics, which was put to good use in several of her books. Two more of her plays were produced at the New Theatre, The Laughing Woman (1934), and Queen of Scots (1934).
About a dozen one-act plays and another dozen full-length plays were written under the name of Gordon Daviot. How she chose the name of Gordon is unknown, but Daviot was the name of a scenic locale near Inverness where she had spent many happy holidays with her family. Only four of her plays were produced during her lifetime. Richard of Bordeaux was particularly successful, running for 14 months and making a household name of its young leading man and director, John Gielgud. (Tey writes of Inspector Alan Grant that "he had in his youth seen Richard of Bordeaux; four times he had seen it".)
Her only non-fiction book, Claverhouse, was written as a vindication of someone she perceived to be a libeled hero: "It is strange that a man whose life was so simple in pattern and so forthright in spirit should have become a peg for every legend, bloody or brave, that belonged to his time."
MacKintosh's best-known books were written under the name of Josephine Tey, which was the name of her Suffolk great-great grandmother.
In five of the mystery novels, all of which except the first she wrote under the name of Tey, the hero is Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant. (Grant appears in a sixth, The Franchise Affair, as a minor character.) The most famous of these is The Daughter of Time, in which Grant, laid up in hospital, has friends research reference books and contemporary documents so that he can puzzle out the mystery of whether King Richard III of England murdered his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. Grant comes to the firm conclusion that King Richard was totally innocent of the death of the Princes.
The Franchise Affair also has a historical context: although set in the 1940s, it is based on the 18th-century case of Elizabeth Canning, and is the only one of her mysteries without a murder. The Daughter of Time was the last of Tey's books published during her lifetime. A further crime novel, The Singing Sands, was found in her papers and published posthumously.
Tey was intensely private, shunning all publicity throughout her life. During her last year, when she knew that she was mortally ill, she resolutely avoided all her friends as well. Her penultimate work, The Privateer (1952), was a romantic novel based on the life of the privateer Henry Morgan. Her last work, The Singing Sands, was found among her papers after her death and was published posthumously. She died of liver cancer at her sister Mary's home in London on 13 February 1952. Most of her friends were unaware that she was even ill, including Gielgud, who was shocked to read news of it in The Times during a matinee performance of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale.
Proceeds from Tey's estate, including royalties from her books, were assigned to the National Trust.
The heroine of Mary Stewart's The Ivy Tree (1961) uses Tey's book Brat Farrar as a model when impersonating the missing heir to an estate. She describes the book as "the best of them all".
Tey is mentioned in the Stephen King novella, Apt Pupil (1982).
Tey appears as a main character in a series of novels by Nicola Upson called the "Josephine Tey Mysteries". An Expert in Murder (2008), the first in the series, is a detective story woven around the original production of Richard of Bordeaux.
The Daughter of Time influenced later mystery writers, notably Barbara Mertz. Mertz, writing as Elizabeth Peters, refers explicitly to Tey in The Murders of Richard III, which sets a country house murder mystery among a group who believe that Richard III was innocent.
In 1990, The Daughter of Time was selected by the British Crime Writers' Association as the greatest mystery novel of all time; The Franchise Affair was 11th on the same list of 100 books.
In 2012, Peter Hitchens wrote that, "Josephine Tey's clarity of mind, and her loathing of fakes and of propaganda, are like pure, cold spring water in a weary land", and
what she loves above all is to show that things are very often not what they seem to be, that we are too easily fooled, that ready acceptance of conventional wisdom is not just dangerous, but a result of laziness, incuriosity and of a resistance to reason.
- The Man in the Queue (or Killer in the Crowd) (1929) [as Gordon Daviot]
- A Shilling for Candles (1936) [as Josephine Tey] (the basis of Hitchcock's 1937 film Young and Innocent)
- The Franchise Affair (1948) [Inspector Grant appears briefly at the beginning, mentioned a few times] (filmed in 1950 starring Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray)
- To Love and Be Wise (1950)
- The Daughter of Time (1951) (voted greatest mystery novel of all time by the Crime Writers' Association in 1990)
- The Singing Sands (1952) (turns on the discovery of the lost city of Wabar, based on the legend of Iram of the Pillars)
These novels are set in the same fictional 20th-century Britain as the Inspector Grant novels.
Kif: An Unvarnished History (1929) [as Gordon Daviot] - story of a boy who cares for horses and goes through WW1.
The Expensive Halo: A Fable without Moral (1931) [as Gordon Daviot] - about two pairs of brothers and sisters, one aristocratic, the other working class.
The Privateer (1952) - a fictionalized reconstruction of the life of the privateer Henry Morgan.
Claverhouse (1937) [as Gordon Daviot] (a life of the 17th-century cavalry leader John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee)
Richard of Bordeaux (1932)
The Laughing Woman (1934)
Queen of Scots (1934)
The Stars Bow Down (1939)
Cornelia (1946) [as F. Craigie Howe]
The Little Dry Thorn (1946)
Leith Sands (1947)
The Balwhinnie Bomb (1949)
The Man in the Queue: broadcast in 1955, adapted by H.B. Fortuin
A Shilling For Candles: broadcast in 1954, 1963 and 1969, adapted by Rex Rienits; in 1998, adapted by John Fletcher
Miss Pym Disposes: broadcast in 1952, adapted by Jonquil Antony; and 1987, adapted by Elizabeth Proud
The Franchise Affair: broadcast in 1952, 1970 and 2005
The Franchise Affair: televised in 1958 (Robert Hall), serials 1962 (Constance Cox) and 1988 (James Andrew Hall)
Brat Farrar: broadcast in 1954, 1959 and 1980 (all adapted by Cyril Wentzel)
Brat Farrar: televised in 1986, adapted by James Andrew Hall
The Daughter of Time: broadcast in 1952 (scriptwriter not credited) and 1982 (Neville Teller)
The Singing Sands: broadcast in 1956 (Bertram Parnaby); televised in 1969 (James MacTaggart)
- Miss Pym Disposes (1946) [as Josephine Tey]
- Brat Farrar (or Come and Kill Me) (1949) (the basis, without on-screen credit, for the 1963 Hammer production Paranoiac)
Source: Radio Times Archive