Friday, February 24, 2012
Friday's Forgotten Book: THE SINGING SANDS (1953) by Josephine Tey
Today is Forgotten Book Friday - as usual - but my book also qualifies as an entry in Bev's Vintage Mysteries Reading Challenge. Funny how that works out.
THE SINGING SANDS is Josephine Tey's last book and while it has a highly unsatisfactory ending (in my view, at least) it is still one of the more elegantly written mysteries I've ever read. On that aspect alone I would highly recommend it, even if you're not familiar with Tey's policeman protagonist, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard.
I'm not sure quite how to describe this book since so much of it does not fit the regulation whodunit, but I'll do my best.
Alan Grant is off to Scotland to stay with friends and recuperate from a plague of nervous fatigue which has taken the form of claustrophobic panic - a kind of post traumatic stress. Though we're not told exactly why this has come to pass. His unfeeling boss isn't happy to see him go even for a short while, he wonders why Grant can't just shake the thing off.
While on the train, just before his station, Grant chances upon a dead body in a compartment - B7, to be exact. But Grant is on recuperative holiday, so, despite misgivings, he leaves the death scene in the hands of a conductor and the local police.
But Grant has taken a look at the face of the young man and been impressed by what he's seen. The dead man has the face of someone Grant would have liked to have known as a friend.
Grant is fairly knowledgeable about faces and types since he is, after all, a cop. The dead man intrigues him. Primarily because the face with the arched eyebrows has the look (even in death) of an adventurer. It is a poetic, intelligent face which continues to pop up in Grant's thoughts as he goes about his days spent with friends, fishing and trying to relax, trying to free himself from his damned claustrophobic debilitation.
By chance, Grant's picked up a memento of the death on the train - a newspaper which was lying in the dead man's compartment. Grant had tucked it under his arm and walked away with it - hardly without meaning to. Turns out the dead man had been scribbling lines of poetry on the pages of the paper. The very enigmatic lines mention 'the beasts that talk, the streams that stand, the stones that walk, the singing sands...'
When the police investigation deduces that the man, Charles Martin - apparently a Frenchman - was falling down drunk and died an accidental death, that is the end of the investigation. Especially when he is identified by the Martin family (through an old photo) as their missing son.
Except that Grant thinks the handwriting in the paper - in English - smacks of English schooling. It has the look and feel, to him, of the Englishman.
On this vague deduction and the feeling evoked by the scribbles of 'poetry', Grant begins his own, slowly evolving investigation, on his own time, in between the fishing and the trying to be a reasonably good guest to his caring friends. Friends, by the way, who have even invited a beautiful lady with a title (whom Grant is nearly smitten with, much to his chagrin) to stay for a few days.
An aside: One of the reasons the book's ending was so unsatisfactory to me, is that this character, Lady Kentallen is quite spirited and delightful company. She pops into the story midway, then is left behind and never mentioned again as Grant returns to London a week early. There is also a second character who pops in later in the book as well, an American named Tad Cullen who is searching for a missing friend NOT named Charles Martin. He too is a wonderful addition to the cast, a young pilot who will 'flesh' out the character of the dead man and make me mourn his lost and trusting friend.
But let's return to Scotland: Try as he might Grant can't shake the nagging feeling that the death of Charles Martin isn't settled at all. He'll get no thanks from headquarters for messing about with an open and shut case, but Grant is not easily diverted when he gets an idea into his head.
On a hunch, he takes a side-trip to the Hebrides, to Cladda, a fairly isolated windswept spot where legend has it, 'the singing sands' can be heard while walking the miles of deserted beaches. While there, Grant is made no wiser about the mystery of Charles Martin - no one's ever heard of him - but he manages to cure himself of what ails him through enthusiastic soul searching, long walks, and spirited philosophical talks with himself, adding his own poetic ramblings to the mix.
Grant is a cop, but he is also a multi-faceted, humane man. The isolation and the stark beauty of Cladda nourishes him, refreshes his spirit and sends him back down to his friends a relatively 'new' man.
There is much going on in this story, besides a murder mystery. Josephine Tey has also given us a tale of self-discovery, adventure, lost cities in the desert, friendship and loyalty and the unrelenting search for truth.
What really happened to the man in the train with the English schoolboy handwriting and the face of a poet?
Eventually, with the help of Tad Cullen, the roots of an insidious murder plot are revealed and as vile a murderer as you will ever read about, is uncloaked.
To read this book is to take a journey inside Alan Grant's heart and soul, to selfishly wish, in the end, that Tey hadn't died soon after, if only because we'd have liked much more of Grant's company AND his deliberate, rationalized sleuthing. A complex, amazing man, whose company I will miss.
Even if he decides, in the end, that marriage is not for him.