Josephine Tey’s “The Singing Sands”


It must be forty years since I last read one of Josephine Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant novels, and thought it would be interesting to look at one of them again. The Singing Sands is a brilliant if flawed detective story; not that that matters to me, for the brilliance of the writing much outweighs the flaws. It was one of the last pieces of writing Tey undertook, and was published in the year she died, 1952. There is a somewhat elegiac feel to the whole piece.

It is not a detective story in the conventional sense. Alan Grant is on leave suffering from stress and claustrophobia. The suggestion is that this is from overwork, though there are references to his time in World War Two.

Grant, on his way by the overnight sleeper train to a fishing holiday in Scotland, witnesses the discovery of the body of a man called Charles Martin. Martin has apparently fallen and banged his head in his compartment. As this appears to be an accidental death, Grant wanders away, not realising that he has picked up the dead man’s newspaper, on which are scribbled a verse of geographic clues.

But as he tries to enjoy his holiday, the words of the verse play on his mind. He begins to discover the background of the dead man, but is he who everyone believes him to be?

And what are the geographic clues in the verse? What are the singing sands?

In descriptive Scottish scenes worthy of John Buchan, Grant goes to the Hebrides in search of a solution. Some of the novel’s best writing is here. You get a real feeling of just how a Scottish island would have been in the years immediately after the war. Tey’s feeling for the Scottish landscape is superbly presented.

When Grant returns to London he finds out a great deal about the past of the dead man. All is not what it seems, for the dead man seems to have a double-past.

And was Charles Martin’s death on the train accident or murder? I won’t say anymore because I think this is a detective story you should read for yourself. And Tey, as we witness in some of her other books, is quite skilled at bending the rules of detective fiction to achieve her effects.

If the solution to the mystery didn’t quite work for me, I’m not that bothered. The journey was vastly entertaining and Tey is quite a page-turner.

The Singing Sands is not up there with her very great classics such as Brat Farrer and The Franchise Affair, but it is a terrifically atmospheric read, and her descriptions of the Scottish landscape and people are quite beautifully executed.

Well worth reading.

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4 responses to “Josephine Tey’s “The Singing Sands”

  1. Oh, yes, John, this one has those wonderful passages. There is a sense of sadness to it but it’s worth a read and she captures the landscape and his own feeling so well. Do either of you read Nicola Upson’s series with Tey as the main character? She has a great sense of period and setting, too, and makes use of real events to throw “Tey” into the midst of murders. London Rain is the newest~

  2. Gaslight Crime

    I’ve read Nicola Upson, though John hasn’t yet. I’ve mixed feelings – not keen on real people being adopted as characters. Having said that, I agree that her feeling for the period and sense of place are superb. And there’s a very appealing darkness about her plots. I really admired ‘The Death Of Lucy Kyte’ which is so clever. Anne

  3. Oh, yes, that was one of my faves. I think using Tey in that personna, not as Elizabth, gives her a but of latitude with that real person thing. Certainly the personal life she imagines for Josephine was never confirmed for Elizabeth. The one set in Portmerion with Hitchcock (Fear in the Sunlight) made me want to visit there, but I understand it’s vastly changed from the way Upson describes it as bright and new.

  4. Gaslight Crime

    Read an interesting interview with Nicola, saying she wouldn’t have thought of writing crime novels without Elizabeth – she was researching for a Tey biography but realised there wasn’t enough material. She was so keen she decided to tell Elizabeth’s story through fiction. Seems to me she’s a born writer. Haven’t visited Portmerion for many years so it may be horribly commercialised but the coastal setting is stunning and it’s known for its woodland gardens. A curious place but probably well worth a visit.

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