The Singing Sands, by Josephine Tey

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The Singing Sands was Josephine Tey’s final novel, found among her papers after her death in 1952 and not therefore necessarily as it would eventually have seen print, assuming she thought it of sufficient quality for publication.  In it Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard has suffered severe mental strain through overwork and has reluctantly been given leave of absence by his unsympathetic superior in order to recuperate with his cousin and her husband in the Scottish highlands.  His symptoms include claustrophobia so the only way he can make the journey from London is by overnight sleeper, a stressful experience but better than the alternatives.

Alighting from the train after a sleepless night he happens to pass a compartment as the guard is shaking a man on his bunk on the assumption that he is dead drunk, given the reek of alcohol.  With his professional eye Grant sees immediately that he is actually dead.  Grant straightens the corpse’s jacket and goes on his way but finds over his breakfast in the station canteen that he seems to have picked up the dead man’s newspaper, and in the empty stop press section there is the scrawled fragment of a poem:

The beasts that talk,
The streams that stand,
The stones that walk,
The singing sand,

… [standing in for something something something something]
That guard the way
To Paradise.

It appears on the face of it to have been an accident, the drunk man having fallen over and bashed his head on the basin.  While accepting that it probably was an accident, Grant cannot help feeling that not all is as it seems – supposedly a French mechanic called Charles Martin, he wrote in fluent English with a script that seems English rather than French.

From such an unpromising beginning Grant is gradually drawn into the mystery of who the man in compartment B Seven was and why he was on the train.  The novel’s slow first half builds up a portrait of Grant’s psyche as he grapples with his demons and puzzles over the death while fishing and having his cousin try to set him up with a widowed but impoverished (those wretched death duties) aristocrat.  Asking his sergeant in London about Martin does not help because it seems that the man’s family in Marseilles has positively identified the body from a photograph and the death has been ruled an accident by the coroner.  Meanwhile as he ponders he fishes, during the course of which he meets a kilted Scotsman called Wee Archie.

The trail takes Grant to an island called Cladda in the Hebrides which reputedly possesses singing sands, where he is surprised to find Wee Archie giving a lengthy speech but fails to pick up any clues.  He puts an advert in newspapers referring to the poem.  In response he is visited by an American called Tad who says the lines had put him in mind of a missing friend, Bill Kenrick, a pilot like himself, who was supposed to meet him in Paris but failed to turn up.  Tad is concerned, and says that Bill had been distracted since an incident when bad weather had blown him off course in the Empty Quarter of Arabia – a place with plenty of sand.  He has a photograph with Bill in it, and Grant is able to see that the face he saw in the compartment was that of Kenrick.

Finally Grant heads enthusiastically back to London where his life really lies.  After some detective work – including a side-trip to Marseilles to question Martin’s family where he sees a photograph which shows Martin to have had a superficial resemblance to Kenrick in his post-mortem state – not to mention a lot of luck, the puzzle is solved.  He finds that clues that had seemed to point to Scotland in fact refer to Arabia, in particular the legendary city of Wabar, famed as the Arabian desert’s answer to Shangri-La, lost for centuries. Bill had discovered it when blown off course, but had been killed for the secret by the eminent explorer Heron Lloyd.  Grant tapping Lloyd as the murderer is handy because Grant had merely approached him for expert advice, so having a suspect thrust under his nose is most fortunate.

Ironically a rival expedition finds Wabar, rendering Bill’s death irrelevant.  Lloyd, having he feels committed the perfect murder, wrongly as it happens as he had overlooked some incriminating fingerprints, writes a lengthy confession setting out how he did it and why (a clunky weakness in the structure to wrap everything up) and flies his plane into Mont Blanc.  Grant likens him to Wee Archie in his vanity, a significant character flaw in Grant’s estimation.  Lloyd’s contempt for Bill, finding him ordinary and of no account, reveals more about Lloyd than it does Bill; in his composition of the poem Bill not only provides the stimulus for the solving of the mystery but indicates that someone considered bland can have unseen depths.

A rejuvenated Grant finds that recuperation is better served by having a mystery to solve than fishing.  Despite musing on whether to retire, he is a policeman through and through, and from a casual puzzle to occupy his time he realises that he owes a debt to the dead man for helping him to overcome his own crisis.  His recovery is incremental; from dreading travelling in a car or being shut in a room, he is eventually able to fly without a moment’s thought.  The minor characters too are well drawn, with the exception of Tad the stereotyped American and Wee Archie the caricatured Scottish nationalist.  Grant’s relatives in Scotland are nicely sketched in, his cousin Laura with whom he is still a little in love but who is married to his old school friend, and their young son Pat who idolises Grant, his affection taking the form of presents of hideous fishing lures.

The book contains great descriptions of Scottish scenery.  However, there is a coolness towards Scottish identity and nationalism which is curious given that Elizabeth MacKintosh, Tey’s real name, was from Inverness.  London by contrast is regarded in a positive light for its ‘grace and power’, and particularly for its scarlet buses compared to the ‘miserable’ blue Scottish ones.  The Glasgow accent gets a particularly raw deal.  Such overt signs of Scottishness as wearing a kilt Grant finds bogus.  Pat is getting a bit too Celtic for Grant’s liking, so he considers the best thing for the boy would be to send him to an English boarding school to make him less parochial.  Wee Archie, going around fomenting separatism, is derided, and turns out to be an agent for an unnamed – but we know who it is – foreign power (Tey probably had in mind someone like Hugh MacDiarmid who was a nationalist Anglophobe Stalinist, though he had had a fondness for Mussolini as well).  The food in the highlands is uniformly terrible, the hospitality industry out of season dire.  The fishing is about the only decent thing in the whole place.  This title won’t be high on the SNP’s recommended reading list.

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