On the day of the final performance of Didn’t You Know, a popular musical comedy that has run for two years in the West End, a man is stabbed to death in the queue for tickets with a stiletto. He cannot be identified and in spite of there being a crush of people near him, no one reports seeing anything suspicious.
Inspector Grant is assigned to the case and begins to methodically work through his leads, interviewing the witnesses and working to first identify the corpse and then find a suspect. Tey breaks down her story into very tightly themed chapters, each focused on an element of the investigation such as an interview or a visit to a location.
I rather enjoyed this structural approach as each chapter ends up feeling quite distinct from those around it. I had a sense as I read that you could never entirely know where the narrative would go next and I think it would be fair to say this novel is as much adventure as it is crime fiction.
While the novel has a slower, more descriptive pace, I found it to be a very engaging and entertaining read. Tey’s writing style is laced with entertaining commentary and turns of phrase that make it characterful while her descriptions are often quite evocative. A measure of that is the amount of lines that amused me or that I thought stylish that I ended up highlighting in my Kindle copy; when I reviewed the notes I had made at the end I found I had made more annotations in this one book than I did in all the ones I read in November put together.
I was similarly impressed with Tey’s characterizations both of her main character, Inspector Grant, and of the array of supporting characters she creates. While Grant is initially not the most striking of characters in that he is essentially thorough and competent, events in the second half of the novel cause him to show a set of values that make him a compelling and heroic investigator.
As for the supporting cast, there are some absolute delights to discover here. My favorite is an artist who we encounter in Chapter Seven who won my heart when he expresses his delight at being asked to assist a Policeman in breaking into an apartment and he gets to make quite a few other amusing remarks. Each of Tey’s characters feel quite distinctive and I never had any difficulty keeping the cast of characters straight.
Yet while I think that the novel is highly entertaining and engaging, I do think the book unfortunately ends poorly. That is not a criticism of the solution that Tey comes up with for the crime itself which I thought was effective if unlikely but rather of the way in which it is reached. The problem is that Inspector Grant really cannot be said to solve this case – rather the true culprit decides to reveal their identity to him at the conclusion.
Were I judging this as a 39 Steps-style adventure I would not even think to mention that as a problem but given that this is considered a detective story, it is a shame that the solution is gifted to the sleuth in the form of a confession rather than deduced. I am not even entirely sure that I can say that this is a fair play mystery as there are a few aspects the reader is more likely to intuit than find evidence for – although I am willing to be persuaded I am wrong on this.
Even though I felt underwhelmed by the manner of its ending, I did enjoy this novel a lot. Given the accomplished and polished structure and prose style, I would likely never have realized that this was Tey’s first published crime novel. I look forward to reading some of the later books in the series and seeing how Tey’s style developed.
6 thoughts on “The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey”
I am something of a sucker for “good lord, here’s a dead body we have no means of identifying” novels — see Whose Body?, The Devil and the CID, The Sea Mystery, etc — and, like you, I love the structure of this. Also like you, I find the ending to be a weirdly deliberate overturning of convention; it makes sense, and you can understand why Tey did it, but it’s also an odd direction for things to head (especially given the conventional nature of most of the rest of her crime fiction output).
Mind you, I recently reread a classic mystery that I’d loved first time around and was surprised to find how little detection the detective does, so perhaps it wasn’t quite a boundary-smashing as I suspect…
Grant I find to be something of an enigma, and not necessarily in a good way. Christianna Brand’s Inspector Cockrill is in the same mould, but is much more incisive and unforgiving in his handling of suspects, and Freeman Wills Crofts’ Joseph French is a pure plugger who simply keeps going and going out of absurdly-rigorous determinations; Grant, by comparison, seems to do the investigating because there’s an investigation required by the plot and he’s in the role of the person who should do it. As the books wore on, I found him less and less defined and consequently less bearable!
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The unidentified body is a great starting point for a mystery, isn’t it? I do think it is done well here and I probably enjoyed that first section of the story most of all.
I suspect that in these earlier GAD titles the line between mystery and adventure was blurred much as it has been between mystery and thriller forms today. There are clues dropped for the conclusion here but I don’t think you can reach it through ratiocination, just intuition. Accordingly a confession is needed to wrap things up.
I appreciate your thoughts on Grant. While I liked the character, I do agree he is enigmatic and I only really felt he came into his own in refusing to accept an apparently solved case. I do wish he would have then gone on to solve it himself though.
Tey moved away from these more traditional plot trappings as her books preogressed, so I wonder how fully she signed up the to GAD conventions to begin with (I, for one, would not include here as a GAD author — duhn, duhn, DUUUUUUHNNN!!!).
I see in Tey a lot of what Sayers probably wanted to achieve with the genre, moving onto much more character-based studies (Miss Pym Disposes, Brat Farrar, To Love and Be Wise, etc) where the conventional framing of a typical detective plot is quickly abandoned. To an extent, I think this means a lot of people come to her books expecting far more conventional mysteries than they actually provide.
For my money, she never topped The Franchise Affair — a desert island book if ever there was one.
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That is bold talk, JJ! I can’t disagree on the evidence of this book though. I would agree that if you come at this not expecting a conventional mystery you would find it more satisfying.
I will look forward to getting to The Franchise Affair soon!
I enjoyed this one and pretty much agree with you on all points except the character of Grant. This, however, may be coloured by memories of some of the other books in which he comes across as rather self-righteous and smug. Though I have some issues with Tey’s snobbery (yes, I know it’s endemic but some writers irritate me more than others, often quite irrationally) she was a talented and atmospheric writer.
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I can see how the character as written here could develop that way – he is very self-assured and a little patronizing towards his assistants even here – but the plot didn’t really lend him much opportunity for smugness. I guess I will have that to look forward to in future volumes!