There are two types of thrillers: Ones which holds the reader by the lapel of her coat and pushes her to finish reading the novel in one sitting, even at the cost of losing a Sunday night’s sleep. The pace is breathtaking and the author throws surprise after surprise, keeping the reader on tenterhooks. The other type slowly draws the reader into the story and before they know it, the reader are very concerned about the characters and how the development of the story will impact the characters. These novels have their own logical life and the hand of the author is skillfully hidden. If the first one is what you want during your train journey, the second one is for those lazy rainy weekends, where with abundant leisure at your disposal you enjoy the mystery with cups of tea at regular intervals. Josephine Tey’s ‘The Singing Sands’ belongs to the second category of mystery books. (There is also a third category of thriller book, wherein you can’t read more than 30 or 40 pages without getting bored but we will not talk about it.)
The book starts with Inspector Grant, the hero in many Tey’s books, taking leave and travelling to the Scottish Highlands by train. He is suffering from claustrophobia and is visiting his cousin in Scotland, with the hope that change of place will help cure his problem. About to get down at his destination, Grant observes that the train porter has discovered a dead man in one of the compartments. After helping the porter, Grant enters the compartment and takes with him the newspaper present in the compartment. In the blank space of the newspaper the dead young man has scribbled a poem,
“The beasts that talk,
the streams that stand,
the stones that walk,
the singing sand…”
The dead man’s face and the poem fascinate Grant and he goes about trying to solve the murder mystery.
The police are not too keen on the case, the identity of the young man is not known: no one reports such a person missing and none comes to claim the body. Who is this stranger, on what purpose was he coming to Scotland and why did he write that poem on the margin of the newspaper? Questions that intrigue Grant and even though he has almost nothing in terms of clues, he keeps trying to solve the mystery using various devices. He finally succeeds in solving the mystery which also helps him find the cure for his claustrophobia.
This is not the case of a serial killer who must be stopped before he/she can perpetuate the next crime. This is a case where the protagonist wants to clear up the mystery for it affects his conscience. There is something about an unknown person’s death, a person whom no one seems to be interested in and yet he is as human as the rest, which disturbs Grant’s conscience. Added to it is the fascination of the puzzle: what was he trying to say in the poem? What are the stones that walk? What is the singing sand? Grant is driven towards solving the mystery by his conscience as well as his need for diversion from his own health problems.
Josephine Tey’s style is a perfect match for the story she narrates. The pace is leisurely; she never pushes anything hard and allows the story to develop a rhythm of its own. Once the reader starts moving to the rhythm of the story she gets pulled into the story, as if going down the quicksand. The pace allows the reader to connect with the characters and the life that they lead, far away from the bustle of the city. Tey also brings in interesting characters at regular intervals to keep the pace from sagging. The combination of pastoral life and movement of the case is well balanced. The ending is in keeping with the adventurous nature of those times and is very satisfactory.
This novel is as much a reflection on the ingenuity of Tey to come up with a classic murder mystery as it is on her love for Scotland. She writes with relish about the trips that Grant undertakes in Scotland. The Highlands and the small islands of Scotland come to life in Tey’s writing and her eye for detail is what makes this a fascinating novel. Her enjoyment of the journey that Grant undertakes to various waterways in Scotland is very evident in her writing. Here we see a person who loves those places dearly and the novel turns out to be as much about unraveling the beauty of Scotland as it is about unraveling the murder mystery and this leads to the reader getting intimately connected to these places. Only the best of the writers can do this and Josephine Tey is one amongst them.
It is still a mystery to me as to why someone like Josephine Tey, who wrote such charming prose and is able to infuse life into places and people is not as popular as Agatha Christie, who wrote vapid prose. I guess some mysteries in life will remain unsolved.