Today’s book for Mystery Monday Meme is The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey. This is the third book I’ve read by Tey, and the first in her Inspector Alan Grant mystery series. Tey
(the name used for her mystery novels by Elizabeth Mackintosh, 1896 – 1952, a Scottish author who also wrote historical novels under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot), is still, today, considered one of the most respected mystery writers of all time.
Writing in the early 20th century, Tey has a style that is totally evocative of the age. As I began reading The Man in the Queue, I felt a slow smile spreading across my face — the vocabulary, the taut sentence structure, the descriptions of the London theatre district and the crowds that frequented them, the completely British terms (like, queue), all combined to promise a totally delightful read. Traces of her hero, CID Grant, can be seen in quite a few British detectives — Morse, who quite often got his solution wrong until almost the end, Holmes, of course, who spared no effort to track his quarry across the length of England, CID Frost, who relies so much on his gut instinct, Inspector Pitt, who plods along logically, following every clue with deep dedication — but Grant is definitely one of a kind. He likes to hear experts pronounce their findings, to see things for himself, and to argue the witnesses, the evidence, and what they might suggest, with his “observer” self.
Given a young man no-one knows, killed in a theatre queue where no-one has noticed the murder or the murderer, no tailor or laundry marks on the victim’s clothing, a revolver in the coat pocket, and no motives, how does Grant begin to solve the murder? There is a tie that has a label, a lady from the queue who is behaving suspiciously, and blood not belonging to the corpse in a small crack in the handle of the knife, a rather Spanish-looking affair with the figure of a saint on it. Within a couple of days, Grant has five anonymously-sent five-pound notes to bury the corpse that have only the victim’s fingerprints on them and on the accompanying note, and a witness who saw and overheard an argument between the victim and another man over a revolver the victim had “borrowed”.
At first, all the evidence points to a young man preparing to commit suicide. The pieces start to all fall together; so why does Grant have the uneasy feeling that it’s all wrong? With the murderer in custody, Grant still can’t leave it alone.
This story has exciting chases through the labyrinth streets of London and across the Scottish moors, well-meaning interference from friends of the main suspect, leads that take Grant to the beach and the racetrack, and, unexpectedly, he finds rather reluctant assistance from a surprising source. Clues that are misread sidetrack our hero into totally erroneous conclusions, and in the end, a confession clears the air, leaving Grant both relieved and embarrassed.
I loved some of the descriptions that are so apt of the times. Arriving at a desolate Scottish train station, Grant finds the last 36 miles of rough, narrow roads are to be covered in a charabanc (an open mailcar with benches for passengers). Tey describes it thus:
Behind the driving seat were three benches, their penitential qualities inadequately mitigated by cushions, stuffed, apparently, with sawdust and covered in American cloth.
Another left me with mixed feelings as Tey described the school teacher who was renting the rooms formerly used by the victim.
. . . a key rattled in the lock, and a drab woman of twenty-eight or so let herself in, her grey-drab coat, fawn-drab scarf, timidly fashionable green-drab hat, and unexpectant air proclaiming her profession.
The story is being narrated by an unknown who rather startlingly uses the first person in a couple of places to make observations:
Grant was still fuming and glowering and promising himself all sorts of fancy retributions when the man passed the gate. I have always wished that I could have seen Grant’s face at that moment — seen the disgruntled anger and resentment of a man who had tried to do things decently, only to have had his decency taken advantage of, change to the sheer unbelieving astonishment of a small boy beholding his first firework.
Once again, I’ve found myself intrigued by the variety of cover art for the various editions of this novel. The one I’ve put at the top of the page, I thought conveyed the story best of the ones I’ve seen. I’ve included a few other versions, just to give an idea of what there is. Feel free to comment on which you like based on my review, or your own opinion if you’ve read this little gem already.
If you’re a fan of the rather dignified, genteel British mystery in the style of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, you will very much enjoy these finely crafted plots and their totally likeable detective inspector. Tey, as always, writes with captivating language and manages to follow the hero’s internal debates in a revealing way without flogging the proverbial dead horse. This is another series I’m adding to my list of favourites/comfort reads. * * * * *