Postcard Rex: The Singing Sands
Mysteries for spooky season
Hi, all. And happy Halloween!
The Singing Sands, Josephine Tey
The Singing Sands ticks all the classic UK murder mystery boxes: a Scotland Yard detective, a suicide-or-is-it-murder?? on a train, and a supporting cast of quirky, class-bound, and cleverly understated characters. It would almost be a parody of the genre were it not for the talent of the author, Josephine Tey, and the sly, self-deprecating humor that pervades her work. Tey can make even historical research conducted entirely from a hospital room feel like an urgent unraveling.
The Singing Sands is the last book in Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant series, but, because of a library quirk, was the first of her novels that I read. It felt curiously fitting to start at the end, with Grant at a point of what he considers failure. He’s on leave from Scotland Yard to grapple with his mental health (“overwork,” in the parlance of the era) and the sudden onset of debilitating claustrophobia. He stumbles on a suspicious death during his journey to Scotland to recuperate, and ends up chasing a few lines of poetry around the Hebrides and back down to London and Paris to sort out the case and himself.
Piecing together a puzzle absorbs the mind: you focus on external things at the expense (or relief) of the self. Like all the best detectives in literature, Grant is very good at observing others’ psychology—and, like most of us, has difficulty applying the same observations to himself. It’s intriguing to watch his self-discovery unfold as the mystery does, taking the story a shade deeper than your typical procedural. There’s just enough reality to make it meaningful, and just enough mystery to deliver a satisfactory solution.
I like that the point of Tey’s mysteries isn’t necessarily who did it, but why. Unlike a Christie novel, you’re not introduced to a full cast of suspects that keep you deducing, but led towards a deeper understanding of human motivations and the gray areas of justice and mercy. In Brat Farrar, you know from the start that the protagonist is posing as the long-lost heir to a fortune but still get sucked into the tension of deception and discovery; The Franchise Affair keeps you seesawing between perceptions of the truth as the stories of a woman who claims she was kidnapped, and the mother and daughter who say they didn’t, are pitted against each other. The tension isn’t in whodunnit, but in the more important questions of how and why they done it—and how they live with it afterwards.
If you like it
Agatha Christie is the obvious choice: I always get a kick out of the underrated Miss Marple’s sharp insights, or try Hercule Poirot’s Hallowe’en Party to get in the spirit of the season.
If you don’t
If you want a more murder-driven mystery than a contemplative chase, The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji (translated by Hong-Li Wong) features a group of college students being picked off one by one.
Recommended booklist on Bookshop.org
Things I’ve written lately:
Nothing published, but a lot coming up!