During a long stretch of my life, I read mysteries. I stopped mainly because my reading time got sufficiently fragmented, and my memory sufficiently riddled, that I couldn’t remember whether it was Archer Evangeline who was caught hiding the quoit from his sister Lily or it was Sister Evangeline who was caught at archery among the lillies.
So, this summer when I found myself with a bad Internet connection and nothing particular to read, I picked up Josephine Tey’s The Singing Sands, a book I’d read in high school. Back then it led me to a long, happy run through the other great British women mystery writers, the anti-Christies.
I finished The Singing Sands this morning. I only got through it because I couldn’t believe it could keep getting worse. I was wrong. [NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD.]
The book starts well. A young man is found dead in a sleeping car of a train going from London to Scotland. Our hero, Inspector Grant, happens to be in the cabin next door. (Mysteries are permitted an opening coincidence in order to get the detective involved.) Grant, apparently not up to the evidentiary standards of British Train Mystery: CSI, rather casually walks off with the young man’s newspaper and notices that in one corner he’s scribbled an eight-line poem about a place with — wait for it — singing sands. This piques his interest, and so far we’re with him. Grant is, after all, on vacation to recover from a case of burn-out bordering on nervous breakdown.
The book moves slowly but charmingly at first. Grant’s got a screaming case of claustrophobia that shows up intermittently as he relaxes at the rural home of his cousin and her husband. (The fact that Grant’s got the hots for the cousin seemingly wasn’t as creepy to the Brits of the time as it is now.) Then Tey introduces a cast of characters too predictable in their eccentricity. Halfway through, she drops in an uppercrustacean lady who charms the knickers off of Grant. Grant, though, is too busy obsessing over the accidental death on the train. He even goes up to a remote Scottish island looking for singing sands, an episode lovingly told but without plot consequence.
The best pal of the dead guy shows up, a personable and pliant young American pilot. With the homoerotic subtext firmly left safely in the closet along with Grant’s abandoned claustrophobia, the two go to London to chase down clues. The big break comes when Grant, without a shred of motivation, visits a famed Arabian scholar who admits to having met the victim.
With no other suspects, Tey only pretends to fool us from that point on. The whole sorry affair is wrapped up by a multi-page suicide note from the Arabist who explains that he killed the guy because the guy had discovered the location of Shangri-La. Nope, I’m not making this up.
Inspector Grant returns to work, having dropped his nervous breakdown, the comely noblewoman, and the hot cousin without even a glance backwards. It’s an implausible mystery with some lovely scenic writing in the first half. But casting a fly in a Scottish river should not be the most exciting part of a mystery novel. If you’re going to advance the art of mystery writing by introducing rich, textured characters, you might be forgiven for weakness in the mystery. But Tey resolves Grant’s claustrophobia by having him spend a weekend with Scottish rustics and resolves the mystery through coincidence, mythical lands and an overly-loquacious suicide note.
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