After a long absence, Alan Grant returns to my life. (Which is a different way of saying “I haven’t read this in a long time”.) It’s obvious that Josephine Tey didn’t originally intend to write mystery novels: not to in any way belittle mystery novels, which I love, but there is an intelligent uniqueness to her story and her writing that is a pure joy, an approach to the task which is fresh and unique.
Alan Grant (whom I cannot call by his last name, and therefore with whom I will probably become a bit familiar as I talk about these books; hopefully he wouldn’t mind me calling him Alan) is … lovely. Also lovely: the Pamela Patrick cover art on my copy. I love this painting (drawing) – I think it’s just about perfect.
A friend noted in her recent review of a different edition that she was made a bit uneasy by the oft-repeated word “dago”. I decided to read this on the spur of the moment, and a little ways in remembered that part of the discussion that followed her review, and was a little surprised that I had not encountered the epithet. Before long, Alan Grant dubs the mysterious suspect “the Levantine” – and a minute later I started wondering if that was where “dago” used to be; I questioned it because it didn’t seem to mean the same thing. By the time I finished the book and realized that “dago” had never appeared, it was clear that at some point a more politically correct edit had taken place. Unfortunately the edit was more politically than typographically correct – there were a number of spelling errors. It also wasn’t terribly correct topographically, as the Levant consists of “The countries bordering on the eastern Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to Egypt”, which I think would be a much different sort of complexion than the descriptions of our lad imply.
It’s a lovely, gorgeously written story, this, and I’m glad that the casual racism of another time has been erased (though I’m interested in the mechanics of that). It isn’t so much a Whodunnit, in which the reader can follow along and figure out who the killer is – I’m fairly sure that’s impossible, as the story is written. But it is a terrific Howdunnit, as well as a terrific Howsolvdit – a portrait of a very good and unique detective doggedly following up any thread to find answers to who had the opportunity (and means, and motive) to stab The Man in the Queue. It’s a psychological study, in a way – how people (or at least 1920’s Londoners) can be standing in line in front of or behind or nearby someone who is murdered, and never see a thing; the mindset of a very intelligent detective relentlessly hunting his suspect, and how that changes when the suspect become a man to him; the mindset of the hunted man, whose friend is dead, whether he was the one who killed him or not.
I can’t think of another detective – perhaps not even another fictional character – quite like Alan Grant. He is thoughtful, insightful, brilliant, and could have been anything – and has chosen to take his “flair” into the field of homicide investigation. It’s not quite fair to the poor killers (which is as it should be). His thought processes are clearly illustrated, and it’s a pleasure to follow them. It’s also a pleasure that, while he’s clearly more intelligent than his colleagues, they aren’t idiots – the police are uniformly (pardon the pun) depicted as sharp and hard-working. Nice for a change.
(Reading “Ray Marcable” did not make an impact for a chapter or so, and then I let it sound in my head – and groaned. She wouldn’t … Oh. She would. But surely the British Theatah wouldn’t / didn’t…? I mean, that’s just awful.)