Murder Mystery On A Train, You Say? That Sounds First Class!

My old love of the mystery novel has recently been re-ignited, and I’ve been reveling in some of the finest examples of detective fiction. Josephine Tey was an author whose name and work I was unfamiliar with, but on the back of a recommendation, I bought a copy of ‘The Singing Sands’.

Taking some much needed rest from his London based job, Inspector Grant, heads to the Highlands of Scotland to stay with his cousin Laura and her family. On the train, he discovers that a fellow passenger has been found dead, and while the circumstances appear to be straightforward, something doesn’t feel quite right to Grant, and he starts digging. His pursuit of the truth, however tenuous, takes him to the Outer Hebrides and back to London, and inadvertently cures him of his nervous disorder.

I was gripped by the novel from the first page. Tey’s fine prose was a delight, and the descriptions of the wild remote landscape coupled with Grant’s internal brooding really evoked a sense of his isolation, not only geographically but socially. that intense internal monologue (and occasional dialogue) made the novel feel oddly contemporary. It was only the absence of technology that gave the age of the novel away at times, although if internet access in the Highlands is anything like it is in West Wales, life’s probably not much different to how it was in 1952, when the novel was first published.

My intrigue kept me reading until the bathwater had gone cold on repeated occasions, but it was not merely the plot that was satisfying. The characters were on a journey as the novel progressed. I think it’s significant that Inspector Grant’s recovery from his breakdown was so bound up with his need to unearth the truth behind the enigmatic dark-haired young man he had seen dead in the carriage. The language used to describe the deceased man is always tender and personal in contrast with the quite formal interactions with the widow Lady Kentallion, that he later admits to having considered as potential marriage material. Maybe it is this veiled ambiguity over his sexuality which gives the novel such a contemporary feel.

Another peripheral point that I liked about the novel was that one of the most charismatic of the supporting characters was a wonderfully eccentric, headstrong child. Pat is such a fiery character, obsessed with fishing and fiercely opinionated, I really warmed to him. It struck me that there is a marked absence of well-drawn children as characters in their own right in general fiction, Most exist only to accentuate a character’s role as parent, and offer nothing more. I’ve yet to come up with good examples to the contrary!

I often discover wonderful novels and authors, but rarely do I want to hunt down the entirety of their work. Josephine Tey, (also known as Gordon Daviot and Elizabeth Mackintosh) is one such author. She is definitely a keeper.

Josephine Tey