The Singing Sands – Josephine Tey

Quite a few murder mysteries begin with their victim alive, just long enough that the reader comes to know and like him. (I hate that.) With The Singing Sands, the victim is dead from the beginning, but I still got to know and like him through the course of the book, even as Alan Grant did. (I hate that too, but at least there’s a requiem feeling about it here.)

Much as with Daughter of Time, Alan is laid up and in need of something to take him outside himself. Here, though, Alan is on medical leave from the Force due to nervous issues and severe claustrophobia – and I quite like that he did not find it easy requesting this leave. Being forced to acknowledge what he sees as a weakness not merely to his no-nonsense Super but to himself was a major hurdle. But it was necessary, and he was intelligent enough to recognize that he had to get away or snap once and for all: since an incident on the job, he has been growing steadily less able to tolerate enclosed spaces, steadily less able to rely on his own reactions to stress. Among other things, travel is a nightmare for him. The setting where the book begins, a train just pulling in to the station, is the least hideous option … which means only that he is, barely, able to keep hold of himself. A car or, worse, airplane, would have been nearly fatal for this trip to his cousin Laura and her family in Scotland: the train car is confining, but pride and sheer stubbornness get him through the long sleepless night. Barely. The journey by car from the station to his cousin’s home nearly does him in.

It’s a disturbing, absorbing depiction of claustrophobia and its effects on a strong man in his prime who never suffered from any such thing before. He is horrified and not a little put out at its intrusion into his life now. Alan’s sensible, though, in dealing with it, determined to push himself, but not beyond the bounds of reason. He approaches the situation much the way he does other problems, and forces himself to proceed logically and – again – sensibly; I think I’m coming back to that quality because it’s one that seems to go out the window in so many cases, fictional and non-.

Alan’s discovery of a dead man on his train – young, with a highly individual face – is disturbing, though not as disturbing as it would be if a) he were a civilian, and b) he were not so preoccupied with his own misery. Everyone from the police onward takes the situation as it appears: young man went “one over the eight”, fell, hit his head on the sink, and sadly died. But there is something which, even in Alan’s present state, doesn’t sit well. Then he discovers that he accidentally carried away the man’s newspaper, and that written in a blank space is an extraordinary attempt at poetry, and the man’s life, identity, and death become a puzzle he cannot leave alone. It all leads him on a quest to learn the truth and maybe, just maybe, regain his own self-possession.

As always, the mystery is merely a device to give Alan and his psyche a workout. He just can’t let go of the problem, can’t accept the official verdict, can’t escape the conviction that there’s more to it all. His mind is not the usual simple and undemanding sort I’m used to riding along with in a mystery novel. As was established in Daughter of Time, he doesn’t handle forced inactivity very well, and forced introspection is not his favorite past-time; it’s an unsettling revelation to both him and the reader just how little he enjoys his own company. Even the prospect of all the fishing he can handle doesn’t help: he needs something more, and alternates between almost determinedly despairing plans to reinvent his future – and the, for him, much more constructive pursuit of the truth of the matter of the dead man on the train.

The relationships in the book are pure pleasure. Alan and his colleagues – his Super is not a cardboard cutout, however small his role in the book; Alan and his cousin, Laura, who is very much his Might Have Been; Alan and the dead man’s shade; Alan and the dead man’s friend, and the Lady who is stopping over in the area. Laura’s small son is a creature who skews the likeability average for fictional kids drastically upward – he’s fabulous.

There is a joy to this novel, an air of finality and farewell as Alan puts himself back together again and returns to his life, that makes it fitting for this to be the end of the series, the last of the Alan Grants (though I do have one more Tey book left, when I find it). It’s a solid satisfying ending. I’d love more, which of course is impossible (unless, she said hopefully, there is a cache somewhere of Elizabeth Mackintosh’s papers which might yield more Alan Grant – but she doesn’t seem to have been the type of person to leave boxes full of uncategorized papers), so this is a good note on which to say goodbye, whether it was intended to be the end or not. Josephine Tey was the second, lesser pseudonym Mackintosh used: Gordon Daviot was the name she used for her serious work, her plays. But I remember being surprised to learn of the popularity of her stage work. Richard II was almost its generation’s Cats, with people going back over and over, buying dolls of the characters and mobbing the stars. Yet the plays are, best I can see, out of print (I had to go to eBay for a copy of Richard, and I believe that came from England); it is Alan Grant who lives on. I think he was severely undervalued by his creator. The novels are superb, and it has been a joy to reread them.

Now if only some “angel” would back a production of Richard, preferably either in New York or on film…

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4 Responses to The Singing Sands – Josephine Tey

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey | Writing about books

  2. Mary C says:

    I’ve read The Singing Sands twice and am now listening to it on talking book with my husband, who has never read it. However, we have been to Scotland, including the Perth-Inverness area and as far into the Isles as Iona, and have also been in a Scottish country dance class, and I’m looking forward to his reaction to Grant’s mention of a grand chain.

    Now, a question: Since we’re “audio-reading” and I don’t remember now whether the name of the island Grant visits is spelled the same way as that of the ring, I can’t definitely look it up, and I wonder whether that island actually exists or is the author’s invention. Any thoughts on that matter?

  3. stewartry says:

    It’s been forever since I read this, but – Google Books to the rescue! The island is Cladda. The great and powerful Wikipedia doesn’t list it among the islands of Scotland, so I think she created it just for Alan Grant.

    Now I need to go find the audiobooks!

  4. Pingback: JOSEPHINE TEY. The Singing Sands (1952). | Only Detect

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