The Shapes of Sleep (1962) by J. B. Priestley (Which may well send you to sleep)

A bit like A. A. Milne’s Four Days Wonder (1933), this novel is another one which is described as avoiding genre categorisation:

The Shapes of Sleep is described by its authors on the title page as A Topical Tale. It is a tale not a novel, moving quickly from the first, deliberately mystifying and teasing, though not – this must be emphasised – a ‘mystery story’ or thriller. It is essentially topical not only in manner but in what it is about, the kind of world it presents with searching comments and much sardonic humour.’

A description which raises a lot of questions in itself. What makes a tale not a novel? Or a novel not a tale? Having now read it I can’t see why they resist the term. Equally wondering where all that ‘sardonic humour’ is, but never mind. Overall I would say that this is a novel, and that it is a weak thriller with espionage tinges thrown in. Elements from the aforementioned genres are also poked fun at and undermined, often by Priestley including them in a deliberately amateurish way:

‘This time Sterndale nodded and smiled at the two men, and they nodded and smiled back. This didn’t surprise Sterndale: everybody was living now in a tragic farce that was not even a proper production, just a huge charade.’

Perhaps the thing which I think this dust jacket description goes get right is that the book is ‘topical,’ in that I think it does examine issues which were contemporary to its publication in terms of cold war politics, the common market, gender roles and consumerism, for example. Didn’t feel hugely innovative to me, but I wasn’t around then, so this might be an issue of time.

As to the plot itself, it all begins with Sterndale, a freelance investigative journalist, being commissioned to locate a missing piece of paper, which belonged to the head of an advertising agency, which his friend works for. There are four potential suspects for this act of theft and having selected one suspect, who so happens to be in hospital after a hit and run accident, he soon begins his adventure into a bizarre series of events, which get him tracking down the “shapes of sleep” and travelling to Germany. A potential love interest also arises for him, though it can hardly be said to have a promising start, with said interest knocking him unconscious. But hey ho, the path to love is not always a smooth one…

Overall Thoughts

So as you might have already picked up on, I didn’t hugely enjoy this book. It started off okay, with Sterndale being an unusual character. He acts like a lone, PI type character, with a past of broken relationships, a love of alcohol and preferring a solitary life. But then incidences here and there make you think there is more to him and furthermore there are points where he resists the PI typecasting, feeling depressed when events make him feel like he is in ‘an American paperback.’

Priestley’s use of language can be quite unusual at times, as he describes a hotel which is out of place in Hamburg as like ‘a wedding cake that had been left out in the rain’ and when it comes to the hotel room itself, Priestley says ‘it was a bad nervous breakdown turned into a room.’ Quite the mental image! Us Brits should also feel at home with this book at times, as Sterndale does bring up various grumbles about the railway system. Have we always grumbled about trains?

However, for all these small interesting moments there is a lot of dross in this book and it was mostly quite hard going. The wandering nature of the plot, following Sterndale investigating unusual mysterious happenings, soon flounders a lot. It doesn’t help that Sterndale walks into traps with his eyes open and for no good reason than apathy. I wonder when books are described as ‘topical tales’ that this is a code word for an author who can’t write a decent plot, but perhaps I am being a bit too mean. There is also a consistent trickle of 60s prejudices, though very weirdly these are counterbalanced by Sterndale’s belief that society and men in particular need women to save them. So if you want an entertaining read I would probably skip this one, but if you want to look into 60s society then you might find something of interest. Had this book on my TBR pile for quite a while. If I had known it was going to be like this I think it could have stayed there a little longer, or been nudged off completely.

Rating: 2.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Briefcase/Suitcase


  1. Not as good as the “time plays”, then?

    Re. the tale vs. novel: Jacques Barzun distinguished between the two, and classed the detective story as a TALE. “Detective fiction belongs to the kind of narrative properly called the tale. It is a genre distinct from the novel as we have come to know it since Balzac…”

    To put it crudely: the novel is realistic, and examines a character’s inner life; the tale tells a story.

    The novel is a “narrative that professes to illuminate life by pretending to be history”; the tale “is a narrative too, but comic, not in the sense of laughter-provoking, but in the sense of high make-believe, indifferent to direct portraiture.”

    “The tale, much older than the novel, appeals to curiosity, wonder, and the love of ingenuity… A tale charms by its ingenuity, by the plausibility with which it overcomes the suspicion that it couldn’t happen. That is art.”

    “One goes to a tale because it is a marvelous invention, because it is ingenious, full of suspense and concentrated wisdom, because it flatters the eye and the mind by its circumstantiality, liberates the spirit by its ‘disdain of realism’, and appeases the heart by its love of reason.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Nice review, though shame you didn’t enjoy this one as it did sound really interesting. I’ve read a few non mystery Priestleys – really enjoyed The Good Companions, Bright Day and Angel Pavement. Fascinating definitions of tales versus novels, too… not sure all stories that sound like they qualify under tales would be very appeasing to the heart on the score of ‘love of reason’.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Well, Priestley’s best known for his non-mystery work! We’re really the only ones who’d think of, say, C.P. Snow as the writer of DEATH UNDER SAIL rather than of STRANGERS & BROTHERS or “The Two Cultures”!

        And INSPECTOR is less mystery than science fiction / conceptual drama that uses the investigation into the servant girl’s death to explore themes of time, class, and power.

        But Priestley was a keen detective reader – and raved about John Dickson Carr. (As did Kingsley Amis.)

        He also wrote THE OLD DARK HOUSE, a spoof of the mystery:


  3. “Us Brits should also feel at home with this book at times, as Sterndale does bring up various grumbles about the railway system. Have we always grumbled about trains?”

    This is funny, since Germans too grumble about the train system all the time.

    I disliked both Priestleys I’ve read, “The Benighted” as well as “The Doomsday Men”, so regardless of your review it’s unlikely I will bother with this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • haha glad it’s not just us who have (at times) rubbish rail service. I’ve heard he has done some good non-mystery work, but yeah I don’t think I would be recommending this or any other mystery he has done.


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