Josephine Tey is the pseudonym of Elizabeth MacKintosh, a Scottish author, who also wrote numerous plays under the name of Gordon Daviot. She was one of the great British writers who wrote during the Golden Age of Crime and is best known for her mystery novels.
The Singing Sands was published after Tey’s death in 1952, and features Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard who appears in five previous books by the author. The only other book I’ve read by the author is The Daughter of Time and in both books Tey delves into the psychological aspects of her characters, which makes for very interesting reading.
Inspector Grant, for example, in The Singing Sands, is on stress leave due to overwork. He’s been having panic attacks when in confined spaces and Tey cleverly weaves Grant’s personal problem and an enigma he encounters to resolve both dilemmas. I really enjoyed how she did this and the way she created empathy for both the dead man and Grant’s struggles.
The book begins with off duty Inspector Grant travelling to the Highlands by train to spend some time recuperating at the home of his cousin Laura and her husband. At the end of his journey he witnesses the train guard’s discovery of a dead passenger. The police findings are that the man died of misadventure but Grant is haunted by memory of the young man’s face and some cryptic poetic scribbling left on a newspaper in his compartment:
Th streams that stand,
The stones that walk,
The singing sand…
This was such a well-written and engaging book to read, full of interesting characters, and with the added delight of being set in the Scottish Highlands and the Outer Hebrides.
Grant is a likeable, gruff, sort of character. Single, and happy to be so, in spite of his cousin Laura’s attempts at lining up a female every time he visits; he is a canny judge of character, a quality that serves him well, especially in this particular case, where he pinpoints a character trait in an otherwise unimpeachable person that leads him to believe that the person could commit murder. The character trait was Vanity and here Grant expresses his thoughts to Tad, a friend of the deceased:
‘I find vanity repellant. As a person I loathe it, and as a policeman I distrust it.’
‘It’s a harmless sort of weakness,’ Tad said, with a tolerant lift of a shoulder.
‘That is just where you are wrong. It is the utterly destructive quality. When you say vanity, you are thinking of the kind that admires itself in mirrors and buys things to deck itself out in. But that is merely personal conceit. Real vanity is something quite different. A matter not of person but of personality. Vanity says “I must have this because I am me”. It is a frightening thing because it is incurable. You can never convince Vanity that anyone else is of the slightest importance; he just doesn’t understand what you are talking about. He will kill a person rather than be put to the inconvenience of doing a six months’ stretch.’
‘But that’s being insane.’
‘Not according to Vanity’s reckoning. And certainly not in the medical sense. It is merely Vanity being logical. It is…the basis of all criminal personality…true criminals vary in looks and tastes and intelligence and method as widely as the rest of the world does, but they have one invaluable characteristic: their pathological vanity.’
Grant’s obsession with finding out the truth behind the man’s death takes him to the Hebrides where the ‘singing sands’ were said to be found. The wildness, the isolation and the ‘barren water-logged universe’ soaks into his soul and brings healing. He feels he has become something more than the young man’s champion now: ‘he was his debtor. His servant.’