Earlier this month I came up with my favourite mystery novels which involve holidays, trips or modes of transport. And one of my favourite UK holiday based mysteries was Josephine Tey’s The Singing Sands (1952), so this week I decided to give it a re-read.
The Singing Sands begins with Inspector Grant going on an overnight train to Scotland, where he is to spend his sick leave in the highlands with his school friend Tommy, who is married to Grant’s cousin Laura and who he used to have feelings for. Inspector Grant is envisaging many weeks happily fishing, an activity he sees as ‘something between a sport and a religion.’ Yet this is not entirely going to be the case, as on exiting the train, Inspector Grant comes across the ticket inspector trying to rouse a passenger, who he assumes is drunk. This is not necessarily a foolish assumption as ‘the compartment was so solid with the reek of whisky that you could stand a walking stick in it.’ However, due to his years of experience, Inspector Grant knows this is not correct, bluntly saying to the ticket collector, ‘can’t you recognise a dead man when you see one?’
Unlike many an amateur sleuth, Inspector Grant goes on his way, refraining from getting involved. But the case of the dead man follows him, as when he sits down for breakfast he realises he has picked up the dead man’s newspaper, onto which there is a cryptic verse:
‘The beasts that talk
The stream that stand
The stones that walk
The singing sand
That guard the way
From this point onwards the mystery of the dead man continues to occupy Inspector Grant’s mind. What is the hidden meaning behind the verse? In many ways there is a parallel between the corpse and Inspector Grant. Both it seems were in need of escape (one into the highlands and the other into alcohol) and Inspector Grant sees almost an ‘alliance’ between them. He has ‘a curious feeling of identification’ with the dead man and he wonders whether he was ‘also wrestling with demons?’ This leads Inspector Grant to postulate that his ‘feeling of personal interest, [his] … championship’ of the dead man began from this.
This interest continues throughout his stay with Tommy and Laura, despite the inquest which suggests that the dead man (identified as a Frenchman named Charles Martin) died as an accident due to being drunk. Inspector Grant endures many internal battles, as he mentally argues to himself about his ‘obsession’ with the corpse. Yet even he is aware that this is more than idle curiosity, perceiving that unravelling this mystery is a ‘refuge’ for him from his problems: ‘he had gone out to look for B seven and had found himself.’ Consequently he takes trips to figure out if the verse is linked to locations in Scotland and he advertises in the newspaper to see if anyone recognises the cryptic lines.
This is an investigation which takes a lot of time to bear fruit, but eventually it does taking Inspector Grant back to London and on the trail of something quite fantastical, yet at its’ core it is a mystery composed of several of the basic elements of all wrong doing: vanity and greed.
So what’s up with Inspector Grant?
As I already mentioned Inspector Grant is going on sick leave due to a breakdown of sorts. There is no definitive medical term given, but from various pieces of information it seems as though due to overwork, Inspector Grant is suffering frequent episodes of unpredictable claustrophobia. Re-reading this novel it was interesting to see how Grant’s affliction is presented as the opposite of himself. For example as a detective Inspector Grant is associated with notions of logic and reason, yet Inspector Grant deems his claustrophobia episodes as ‘unconditional surrender to the forces of Unreason.’ Moreover, the word ‘surrender’ heavily implies a loss of control over himself, which I think Inspector Grant finds particularly hard and again this can be found in how he describes his condition, thinking that, ‘one moment [I am] a sane, free, self-possessed human being, and the next a helpless creature in the grip of unreason.’ Furthermore in some ways Inspector Grant perceives his illness as a feminising of himself (with the feminine being aligned with weakness at this juncture). This is epitomised when he links him being cured of his illness as becoming ‘a man again.’ Inspector Grant’s feelings of being unmanned are further demonstrated in how his work colleagues regard his problem, as Inspector Grant notes a loss of hero worship from his sergeant and he describes himself at this point as a ‘poor nerve ridden creature at the mercy of non-existent demons.’ Additionally, his illness leads to a sense of ostracism from his work colleagues, which is evidenced when his chief Bryce sends him a snubbing letter, which makes Inspector Grant feel like ‘an outsider. A renegade.’
In my re-reading of this book I think something I got new from it was a greater sense of identification with Inspector Grant, as I can relate to his issues concerning his illness, an illness which is invisible in many ways (until a bad episode occurs) and it’s this lack of visibility which means other people are not always sympathetic or as aware of the suffering it causes. Furthermore, Inspector Grant has serious anxiety about trying to explain his condition and often tries to hide it instead:
‘Why should I mind Tommy knowing? There was nothing shameful about it. If he were a paralysed syphilitic he would accept Tommy’s help and sympathy. Why should he want to keep from Tommy’s knowledge the fact that he was sweating with terror because of something that didn’t exist?’
This example highlights Inspector Grant’s perceived fear of the way people can prejudice against illnesses which are not physically apparent. Eventually though Laura does find out about Inspector Grant’s claustrophobia and her response to it is interesting. On the one hand she does normalise the problem, rather than making Inspector Grant feel alienated. Yet on the other hand she does the classic thing of firstly telling him essentially to just get on with things and then underpinning this advice with an account of a minor claustrophobia experience she had whilst down a mine shaft, which does not really compare with Inspector Grant’s condition where he struggles to sit in a car. Additionally I also noted a moment where Inspector Grant’s condition leads him to becoming irrationally irritated with those around him:
‘He had a moment of stinging impatience with her. She was too complacent. She was far too happy… It would do her good to have some demons to fight…’
Of course he too realises the unfairness of this thought, but it serves to highlight those occasional moments when you feel so annoyed that those around you aren’t suffering like you and therefore can’t comprehend what you are going through.
Tey gives us quite an in depth picture of the emotional toil Inspector Grant’s condition has on him. For instance soon after seeing the dead man, Inspector Grant seeks a ‘temporary death,’ seeing such a thing as an escape from his troubles. Moreover, his discomfort leads to him thinking about hell:
‘Hell wasn’t a nice cosy place where you fried. Hell was a great cold echoing cave where there was neither past nor future; a black echoing desolation. Hell was the concentrated essence of a winter morning after a sleepless night of self-distaste.’
For me Inspector Grant’s definition of hell, illuminates his own state of mind and what he is going through.
Although his claustrophobia is his main problem, I think another issue with Inspector Grant also surfaces in the novel and that is with his relationships, which suffer due to his addiction to work. On the one hand solving this case does benefit Inspector Grant: ‘the dead young man, who could not save himself, had saved him.’ But on the other hand his dedication to his work leaves no room for love or romantic relationships. I think Laura is very telling when she says to Inspector Grant:
‘You’ve always been a damned Juggernaut… you are destructive… all in the very kindest and most lethal way imaginable.’
A statement I think which reveals why their own romance died out. Work will always hold greater interest for Inspector Grant and in fact I think he sees having a relationship as a loss of control, there is a need for him to run his life his own way, without having to compromise. In this story there is a possible love interest for Inspector Grant, but his interest in the case kills it, as he sees the love interest in question firstly as an obstacle to his work, secondly as an inferior version of Laura and thirdly he thinks the case ‘had saved him from falling in love.’ Love in this instance is seen as a danger to be avoided.
A Window into the 1950s
The Singing Sands is also a novel which provides a vivid picture of how times and society were changing. For example Inspector Grant notices how cafés and eating places have altered: ‘service, he thought, had lost its starch and its high glaze.’ Furthermore, the increased use of exported goods is also apparent when Inspector Grant is staying on some remote Scottish islands, where the majority of what he eats is not locally produced but from all corners of the globe.
I also think Tey uses Inspector Grant’s character as a vehicle for discussing the English class system and on the issue of Scotland’s union with England, with Inspector Grant being in favour of it. To begin with the English class system, Inspector Grant dismantles a number of stereotypes an American character has about the upper class. For example Inspector Grant refutes the idea that all upper class people have ‘beaky noses… specifically provided for looking down,’ suggesting that this is more likely to be found in ‘the suburbs.’ Inspector Grant also asserts that ‘there never has been separate and distinct classes – or an aristocratic class,’ with people mixing from all levels. I’m not sure this argument is entirely convincing but it did make me wonder what Tey’s views were on class.
Moving onto the union between Scotland and England, Inspector Grant describes it in positive terms saying that ‘Scotland stepped thankfully on to England’s bandwagon, and fell heir to all the benefits. Colonies, Shakespeare, soap, solvency and so forth.’ Again this is quite a reductionist argument in some respects, but once more it intrigued me as to Tey’s own views on the matter. Unsurprisingly, the representative of those seeking a separation between Scotland and England is depicted rather negatively: an Englishman playing at being Scottish, with suggestions of criminal activity.
On the whole I enjoyed this novel a lot, although I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as I did the first time I read it. I didn’t mind the slow pace of the novel as Tey’s writing style is so beautiful to read, making this a novel to enjoy for the journey it takes you on and not the destination. Puzzle focused readers will probably not enjoy this novel and will inevitably find the ending unsatisfying, as it is one which requires an epistle to fill in the gaps of the mystery. For me this is a mystery novel which you enjoy and find interesting, but not necessarily because of its mystery. Tey’s characterisation skills are on full display in this novel and my favourite is at the start of the novel concerning Murdo Gallacher, the ticket collector/ train attendant, as she describes him as:
‘the best-hated living creature between Thurso and Torquay. For twenty years Murdo had browbeaten the travelling public into acquiescence and blackmailed them into… monetary tribute… For twenty years… [he] had done the absolute minimum. He had been bored by the job before he had been a week at it, but he had found it a rich lode and he stayed to mine it… For twenty years they had paid up, weary and browbeaten and blackmailed. And Murdo had collected. He was now the owner of a villa at Dunoon, a string of fish shops in Glasgow, and a very nice bank balance.’
He may not play a big role in the story, but Gallacher is someone you can easily visualise and imagine, due to Tey’s abilities to create characters.