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.


  1. I must read a Josephine Tey novel -- I have had Brat Farrar sitting in my pile for ages. I love your Friday's Forgotten Books post -- if only I could find time to read them all!

  2. One of my favourite books, too. I agree with your sentiments about the two characters that Tey leaves in limbo, I wonder what the reason was for that. Surely a good editor would pick that up. Despite the minor flaws, a brilliant book, thanks for reminding me...I'm going to the shelves now to find it!

  3. Joanne: I loved BRAT FARRAR. But you know, DAUGHTER OF TIME is Tey's masterpiece.

    I also recommend A SHILLING FOR CANDLES.

  4. Oh I so agree, Iain. A brilliant book despite the minor flaws. How I wish there were more.

    This was my first reading of THE SINGING SANDS but it probably won't be my last.

  5. She is one of my all-time favorites. Every one is great.

  6. I wonder if Tey was planning a future book with Grant and the lady meeting up again and falling in love (much as Inspector Alleyn and Agatha Troy do in Ngaio Marsh's books) and Tey's death left the characters hanging. On the other hand, it could be that Tey was becoming ill and simply could not gather together all the various plot strands that she had set spinning.

  7. I may have to remember this one after I read the two Tey books I have and like them. I have Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair.

  8. Oh, there are just too few Alan Grant books - and too little Tey, period.

    I'm working my way through this series, making it last as long as I can, so I've not yet read Singing Sands. I will start it with a heavy heart, knowing it is the last.

  9. We agree, Patti. She was an exceptional writer.

  10. Deb: It's possible. I'm not sure what she died of, but if it had been a long illness that might account for the 'hanging threads'.

    It's still a wonderful book.

    I re-read BRAT FARRAR a while back and it definitely held up. A fabulous book.

    I've also re-read DAUGHTER OF TIME several times. Brilliant.

    My other favorite is A SHILLING FOR CANDLES.

  11. Debbie, my think is: at least we have the few we have. :)

    I love her books, so I'll always re-read them.

  12. Ryan: What are you waiting for? Read the damn books. Ha! You will love them.

  13. Yvette, I first read THE SINGING SANDS a long time ago. I was sufficiently impressed (though I share your disappointment about things in the ultimate unraveling of the case) that on a trip to Scotland, soon after reading this, I took a small ferry to the island of Eigg, which also has a "singing sands" - I believe it's a kind of humming, made by the waves and currents. I love Tey's books, particularly THE DAUGHTER OF TIME and I also think TO LOVE AND BE WISE is breathtaking. And I join with all who wish we had had more Tey.

  14. My two favorite Tey books are DAUGHTER OF TIME and BRAT FARRAR, with A SHILLING FOR CANDLES and THE SINGING SANDS not too far behind. I did read TO LOVE AND BE WISE, but I don't rate it as highly as you do, Les, though I did enjoy it. I always enjoy Tey's books. She makes for fine re-reading.

    I've been to Scotland, but before reading THE SINGING SANDS.

    If I ever did go back, I'd take a side trip to this place you mention, Les. :)

  15. I love, love, love Tey! It's a shame that she wasn't around longer to write more. (Yes, I'm singing the same song as everyone else.) Daughter of Time is still my all-time favorite Tey. I won't say it too loudly..but I didn't care for Brat Farrar when I read it. Maybe I should give it another go-round.

  16. Oh if I had to pick my number one Tey, then DAUGHTER OF TIME would be it. Absolutely.

    But I admit I loved BRAT FARRAR and all the other Tey books I've read. My least favorite is THE FRANCHISE AFFAIR, though I know I'm in the minority on that.

    Maybe you should give BRAT another looksee, Bev. Have you seen the PBS mini-series? FABULOUS!!

  17. Josephine Tey had cancer, Yvette, and I think she was very ill while she was writing The Singing Sands which she did not live to see published.

    I love her character of Inspector Alan Grant - wish that she had had more time to write more novels. Tey's characters had immense charm and seemed much more real than the ones created by her contemporaries. What a loss she was to the literary world.

  18. Thanks, Jean-Pierre, for the sad information. I don't know much about Tey's life (but maybe I should)I've just loved her books for years. I re-read several of them all the time.

    I too wish she'd lived longer and written more.

  19. I tried to find the locations, but was unable to except for Oban - which I've taken the ferry from to Mull. But was unable to locate any others. do you know if they are real?

    1. Unfortunately, I have no idea if the locations are real or not. I had assumed there was a mixture of real and invented locations, but that would just be guessing.

  20. Do you happen to know if any of the mentioned locations in the story, except Oban which is easy, are real?

    1. No, I don't, Robert. I'm sorry for not having a better answer. I'm assuming you're already checked google?


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