The Singing Sands

by Josephine Tey

Other authorsRobert Barnard (Introduction)
Paperback, 1996




Touchstone, (1996)


In the last of Tey's Inspector Grant mysteries, her sleuth investigates a death made suspicious by a few enigmatic lines, apparently scribbled by the deceased before his demise. Grant's enquiries take him to the remote Hebrides, where the bizarre circumstances of the death begin to become clear.

User reviews

LibraryThing member JonRob
Tey's last book (published posthumously) features Alan Grant on extended leave following a breakdown. Quite accidentally he intervenes in the case of a dead man found in a sleeping-car, and inadvertently walks off with the newspaper in which the deceased had scribbled some lines of poetry. Gradually, acting in a completely private capacity, he discovers that the body was travelling under a false name, and that he was murdered, the motive being rather outlandish. As usual the book is as much about Grant himself as it is about the crime, and there are some delightful minor characters (Grant's young cousin Pat is particularly well-written) together with some pungent thoughts on Scottish Nationalism. On the downside (from some viewpoints, anyway) rather a lot of time is spent pursuing a trail which turns out a complete red-herring. This book divides opinions, but it's a favourite of mine.… (more)
LibraryThing member Stewartry
Quite a few murder mysteries begin with their victim alive, just long enough that the reader comes to know and like him. (I hate that.) With The Singing Sands, the victim is dead from the beginning, but I still got to know and like him through the course of the book, even as Alan Grant did. (I hate that too, but at least there's a requiem feeling about it here.)

Much as with Daughter of Time, Alan is laid up and in need of something to take him outside himself. Here, though, Alan is on medical leave from the Force due to nervous issues and severe claustrophobia – and I quite like that he did not find it easy requesting this leave. Being forced to acknowledge what he sees as a weakness not merely to his no-nonsense Super but to himself was a major hurdle. But it was necessary, and he was intelligent enough to recognize that he had to get away or snap once and for all: since an incident on the job, he has been growing steadily less able to tolerate enclosed spaces, steadily less able to rely on his own reactions to stress. Among other things, travel is a nightmare for him. The setting where the book begins, a train just pulling in to the station, is the least hideous option … which means only that he is, barely, able to keep hold of himself. A car or, worse, airplane, would have been nearly fatal for this trip to his cousin Laura and her family in Scotland: the train car is confining, but pride and sheer stubbornness get him through the long sleepless night. Barely. The journey by car from the station to his cousin's home nearly does him in.

It's a disturbing, absorbing depiction of claustrophobia and its effects on a strong man in his prime who never suffered from any such thing before. He is horrified and not a little put out at its intrusion into his life now. Alan's sensible, though, in dealing with it, determined to push himself, but not beyond the bounds of reason. He approaches the situation much the way he does other problems, and forces himself to proceed logically and – again – sensibly; I think I'm coming back to that quality because it's one that seems to go out the window in so many cases, fictional and non-.

Alan's discovery of a dead man on his train – young, with a highly individual face – is disturbing, though not as disturbing as it would be if a) he were a civilian, and b) he were not so preoccupied with his own misery. Everyone from the police onward takes the situation as it appears: young man went "one over the eight", fell, hit his head on the sink, and sadly died. But there is something which, even in Alan's present state, doesn't sit well. Then he discovers that he accidentally carried away the man's newspaper, and that written in a blank space is an extraordinary attempt at poetry, and the man's life, identity, and death become a puzzle he cannot leave alone. It all leads him on a quest to learn the truth and maybe, just maybe, regain his own self-possession.

As always, the mystery is merely a device to give Alan and his psyche a workout. He just can't let go of the problem, can't accept the official verdict, can't escape the conviction that there's more to it all. His mind is not the usual simple and undemanding sort I'm used to riding along with in a mystery novel. As was established in Daughter of Time, he doesn't handle forced inactivity very well, and forced introspection is not his favorite past-time; it's an unsettling revelation to both him and the reader just how little he enjoys his own company. Even the prospect of all the fishing he can handle doesn't help: he needs something more, and alternates between almost determinedly despairing plans to reinvent his future – and the, for him, much more constructive pursuit of the truth of the matter of the dead man on the train.

The relationships in the book are pure pleasure. Alan and his colleagues – his Super is not a cardboard cutout, however small his role in the book; Alan and his cousin, Laura, who is very much his Might Have Been; Alan and the dead man's shade; Alan and the dead man's friend, and the Lady who is stopping over in the area. Laura's small son is a creature who skews the likeability average for fictional kids drastically upward – he's fabulous.

There is a joy to this novel, an air of finality and farewell as Alan puts himself back together again and returns to his life, that makes it fitting for this to be the end of the series, the last of the Alan Grants (though I do have one more Tey book left, when I find it). It's a solid satisfying ending. I'd love more, which of course is impossible (unless, she said hopefully, there is a cache somewhere of Elizabeth Mackintosh's papers which might yield more Alan Grant – but she doesn't seem to have been the type of person to leave boxes full of uncategorized papers), so this is a good note on which to say goodbye, whether it was intended to be the end or not. Josephine Tey was the second, lesser pseudonym Mackintosh used: Gordon Daviot was the name she used for her serious work, her plays. But I remember being surprised to learn of the popularity of her stage work. Richard II was almost its generation's Cats, with people going back over and over, buying dolls of the characters and mobbing the stars. Yet the plays are, best I can see, out of print (I had to go to eBay for a copy of Richard, and I believe that came from England); it is Alan Grant who lives on. I think he was severely undervalued by his creator. The novels are superb, and it has been a joy to reread them.

Now if only some "angel" would back a production of Richard, preferably either in New York or on film...
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LibraryThing member janerawoof
The beasts that talk,
The streams that stand,
The stones that walk,
The singing sands,

That guard the way to Paradise

This cryptic verse sends him on a hunt for the murderer of a fellow passenger on a train he is taking to Scotland. He is travelling there to recover from a nervous breakdown, where he will stay with friends. This verse takes him to the Hebrides, to France, and to London. A classic of the genre. I've read only one other of Tey's mysteries, but consider this the better of the two--unexpected twists and turns galore.

Most highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member VivienneR
Another excellent mystery from Tey. This time the investigation is more to do with solving a puzzle than a crime. By going on a visit to his cousin in Scotland, Alan Grant is trying to control or recover from severe claustrophobia brought on by overwork. When the train arrives, one of the passengers was found dead in his cabin. Grant absently picks up the dead man's newspaper where he finds a scribbled verse:

The beasts that talk,
The streams that stand,
The stones that walk,
The singing sands,
That guard the way to Paradise.

The words suggest places in the Hebrides and a fine way to take his mind off his problem. This fishing holiday was the part that I enjoyed most and I would have been content if Grant had remained there to contemplate the puzzle - with the help of an exceptional local librarian!

Excellent characters and setting, but the conclusion was less satisfying with the solution provided in a letter from the perpetrator.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
Sadly Tey wrote only eight mysteries, and this is her last, published posthumously. I don't think it's among her best. I'd rate it perhaps sixth out of the eight, but it's still a great read, and stands out as a character study of her detective, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard.

When he first appeared in The Man in the Queue he struck me as rather bland especially compared to such sleuths as Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey. With the possible exception of The Daughter of Time, he also strikes me in the books he appears in as the most fallible detective protagonist I've ever read. He's not notable for brilliant logical deductions like Holmes or Poirot. What he has is what he calls "flair"--intuition, instinct, imagination--and that doesn't always steer him the right way.

At the beginning of The Singing Sands we see a mentally fragile Grant. Suffering from overwork, he's subject to a crippling claustrophobia. Taking leave to visit his cousin Laura in the Scottish Highlands, he encounters a dead body in one of the sleeping berths, seemingly the result of an accident. On a newspaper is scribbled some verse:

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

That guard the way to Paradise.

He finds that verse teasing his mind, and it pushes him to solve the mystery of the meaning of the verses and the young man's death, taking him to the Hebrides and to Marsaille.

The introduction to the newest editions of the Tey books by Robert Barnard don't hold up Tey to a flattering light. I don't think Barnard really likes Tey. I came across on the internet at one point a list by Barnard of favorite works of crime fiction--notably Tey wasn't on his list. In his introduction he accuses Tey of "anti-Semitism, contempt for the working class, a deep uneasiness about any enthusiasm (for example Scottish Nationalism) that, to her, smacks of crankiness."

Having recently reread all the books, there are definitely ethnic stereotypes expressed by characters, especially Grant. However, notably the only identifiably Jewish character, in A Shilling for Candles, is a positive one who rightly twits Grant about his class prejudices--Grant is entirely wrong about him. I also can't see anything but respect for working people in Tey's books. What she does express contempt for are self-styled radical champions of the working class--quite a different thing. Her attitude there is especially evident in The Franchise Affair.

The Singing Sands is the book where the digs against Scottish Nationalism are primarily made. They don't strike me as cranky though. If anything they strike me as refreshing and relevant, as a slap at those who try to flare back to life age-old historical grievances. And I can certainly see Wee Archie in a lot of current political activists. Tey definitely shows a conservative sensibility that might offend the politically correct, and this is definitely one of her novels where that attitude is to the fore. And actually the tic I find most disconcerting throughout the novels isn't one Barnard picked up on. Tey has a tendency to judge people on their looks--not on whether they're attractive or not. But Grant believes someone is adventurous because of the shape of his eyebrows and in The Franchise Affair a woman is believed promiscuous because of the shade of blue of her eyes. As often is the case with Tey, this book also isn't the strongest of mysteries in a puzzle box sense. I found the way the mystery is resolved by a confession in a letter particularly weak. This definitely wouldn't be the Tey work I'd recommend as an introduction--I'd choose either The Daughter of Time or Brat Farrar if you haven't yet tried her before. But as with all Tey's books, this is strong in prose style, humor and unforgettable characters. And it's somehow fitting her last book is one where we get to delve a bit deeper into the psyche of her detective hero.
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LibraryThing member MusicMom41
This was Tey’s last Alan Grant mystery. I always enjoy her books and this one was very satisfying. Tey's books tend to be novels instead of just a puzzle to solve. This one was a good novel and an intriguing puzzle.

As Grant leaves the train in Scotland where he has gone for an extended rest because of work stress he passes a compartment where there is a dead body. He absent mindedly picks up a newspaper from the scene on which is written an unusual “poem”.

The beasts that talk,
The streams that stand,
The stones that walk,
The singing sand.
That guard the way
To Paradise

He becomes engrossed in trying to discover who this dead man is and why he wrote the poem. His answer is surprising.
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LibraryThing member Smiley
Interesting mystery. More novel than mystery..
LibraryThing member kylenapoli
Clearly written by an author at the height of her powers, this is a perceptive portrait of a smart person wrestling with his own mind (in more ways than one). And a satisfying mystery to boot.
LibraryThing member ben_a
The beasts that talk
The streams that stand
The beasts that talk
The singing sands

Tey writes mysteries, but her excellences are those of a novelist. She fashions unforgettable characters. She describes the natural world precisely and beautifully. She is very funny. Her puzzle mechanics are less central. As they should be. 3.2.08… (more)
LibraryThing member selkins
Inspector Alan Grant runs into a little mystery on the train to Scotland (for a health break), and can't quite let go of it while visiting a friend, and fishing. Likeable and unlikeable characters keep showing up, some helping and some hindering his investigation. Grant is likeable too, although he doesn't always realize just how annoyingly complacent and dismissive he can be. Grant's recovery struggles, the poetry and "hidden worlds", and flashes of dry humor in this contemplative book make it a satisfying read.… (more)
LibraryThing member MrsLee
Inspector Grant is on the verge of a mental breakdown, his doctor sends him to spend some time in Scotland fishing and relaxing. Not thinking about or working on any murders. However, fate has a different plan in mind, and possibly a better route of healing than anyone could have prescribed.
This was an amusing book to read, I did feel the author copped out at the end, but the path there was a good one. She is very good at her characters, they are vivid and easily seen.… (more)
LibraryThing member MargaretPinardAuthor
What a great read! Apparently this was her last in the Inspector Grant series, so I'll have to go back in time to read the rest! Great language, great dialect and setting detail. Perfect individual plot beside the larger murder mystery. Recommended without reservation- a quick read.
LibraryThing member pdgromnic
If such a thing is possible, this is a pastoral mystery. Her sentence structure and use of language make The Singing Sand flow as if it were a conversation. A true Great Read. This author deserves much more
readership than I suspect she has .As to being unkind to marginalized groups, it's not always possible to sympathize with all things. I suppose that's why we eat trout. Thanks, Mrs. Tey!… (more)
LibraryThing member jjmcgaffey
Huh. Now I've read The Singing Sands - and I have no idea whether I had read it before. I certainly had no idea what would happen next, and yet it all feels familiar - very strange. Good story, too - is this the first Grant? If so, he's neatly presented. No, actually it's the last! Poor Zoe. The chance way Grant got involved in the death was very elegant, and the depictions of the various places he goes, from the Hebrides to Marseilles to London, are beautifully done. It's a little odd, though, when I know Grant from Daughter of Time - in that he's laid up with a broken leg, in this he's recovering from a nervous breakdown. Does he always do his interesting work when he's ill?… (more)
LibraryThing member krsball
I'm a big Tey fan and I love the main character, Inspector Grant.
LibraryThing member overthemoon
Inspector Grant takes a break for health reasons; on his train to Scotland he sees a body, is intrigued by some lines he sees written on a newspaper, lets them niggle at his brain, carries out an investigation while struggling with claustrophobia, does some fishing, makes peace with himself, solves the mystery - which is totally mystifying. Very enjoyable, remarkably well written.… (more)
LibraryThing member Kindleifier
This is one of my favourite Alan Grant stories, and excellently read by Stephen Thorne. Grant is a very attractive character with his fascination with faces and his detached analysis of those around him - including his nearest and dearest. I particularly enjoy his inner arguments with himself in this tale.

The story opens with him on a night train to Scotland, suffering from a breakdown through overwork that has left him with claustrophobia. In a daze after a sleepless night he sees a notoriously despised porter known as "Yughourt" shaking a passenger to wake him, so that he can clear the train. The man is dead and Grant straightens his jacket from the mauling Yughourt has given him. Absent-mindedly he picks up a newspaper which has fallen to the floor,and later on finds some verse scribbled on it. The verse and the dead man's face become something of an obsession, and Grant tries to find the source of the verse:

The beasts that talk,
The streams that stand,
The stones that walk,
The singing sand
: :
: :
That guard the way
To Paradise

His hunt for answers takes Grant to Cladda in the Hebrides, to France, and an early return to his home in London. Along the way we meet his cousin Laura with whom he had a budding romance in their youth, her outspoken miniature rebel of a son, Patrick, a draggle-tailed revolutionary called Wee Archie, a young American pilot, and a world famous explorer, with a host of minor, though well-drawn, characters.

It is a mystery rather than a crime story, though there is a crime behind it all. It is about people - their characters and relationships - and about the beauty of Scotland. I have read and listened to it a number of times over the years, and still enjoy it every time.
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LibraryThing member jkdavies
a deceptively slow tale...At the beginning Inspector Alan Grant is in some sort of recuperation, needing rest and relaxation, and you get wrapped up in the details of his Highland break - the cold cold hotel in Cladda, the fear of flying, the only woman who looks good in waders... and then his mind kicks back in and he picks up the threads of the mysterious man with the reckless eyebrows who died on the train Alan was travelling on. I love the "Aha" moment when he recognises the vanity of the murderer, and how he picks and puzzles until the clues come together.
And beautifully, understatedly written too.
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LibraryThing member raizel
I first read this as a paperback in the 1960s. It had a magical feeling that i didn't feel so much the last couple of times that I've read it, but it's still a warm cozy with interesting and likeable characters. (Unfortunately, the first thing I read was the back cover: it give away the big surprise disclosed a few pages before the end of the story! Harrumph!)… (more)
LibraryThing member neurodrew
The Singing Sands
Josephine Tey
May 8, 2016
Inspector Alan Grant is burnt out, and takes a leave to visit family in Scotland. He is troubled by claustrophobia. When he awakens on the train, he observes the porter trying to awaken a dead man. He absent-mindedly grabs the newspaper the dead man had in his compartment, and finds a scribbled fragment "The beasts that talk/The streams that stand/The stones that walk/The singing sands/ ... /That guard the way to paradise". A dead man writing cryptic poems, what more could a police inspector ask for? The rest of the book is about finding the identity of the dead man and unraveling the mystery of the poem. There is a long mislead visit to the Hebrides, and finally a confession from an Orientalist. Enjoyable for the atmosphere and misdirection.… (more)
LibraryThing member ChazziFrazz
I have enjoyed Josephine Tey's writing over the years. Hers are not simple mysteries but rather complex. Small clues can be found as you read along, but they can easily be missed.

Inspector Alan Grant is on a forced holiday visiting relatives in the country, after suffering from a nervous breakdown from over work. As he is leaving the train he sees a sleeping-car attendant man-handling a passenger that seems to be in a drunken sleep. To Grant's eye it is apparent that the man isn't asleep, but is dead. As Grant walks by, he picks up a newspaper from the floor and then heads out to his hotel. He is on holiday and not to become involved with any police work.

At the hotel he picks up the paper and notices some pencil written lines of poetry. The lines are haunting and start him on thinking about the dead man. He finds himself drawn into the mystery and searching down more clues to find out who the man is, why was he murdered and what the written lines refer to.

A goodread to me.
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LibraryThing member antiquary
Alan Grant has developed claustrophobia from overwork and takes a fishing holiday in Scotland, but when the train from London arrives in Scotland,one of the passengers is dead. The death is apparently an accident, and the dead man is identified as a French mechanic, but Grant finds the victim had been writing an odd poem before he died about singing sands and other strange things that guard the way to Paradise. At first this leads him to the Hebrides,but then his advertisement about the poem brings a response from a man who identifies the dead man as a British commercial pilot flying in Arabia who might have discovered the legendary city of Wabar, supposedly guarded by the strange things in the poem. (NB another of these legendary Arabian cities has in fact been discovered, long after Tey wrote this book.) The Scottish sequence seems to be of little use beyond praising aspects of Scotland Tey liked and satirizing aspects she didn't like, notably an egregious Scottish Nationalist phony Gael from Glasgow, (I hate to think how she would react to the present success of the Scots Nats)… (more)
LibraryThing member annbury
A great book; my wife wonders what Ms Tey would think of the current crop of Scottish Nationalists. This was a do-not-put-down book that I read in two
days. Yes, she has the great Alan Grant, detective extroadinary, and he finally gets this jerk to write him a letter explaining how he did it,
LibraryThing member Figgles
The Singing Sands is the final Alan Grant book and was published posthumously. It's slightly odd in structure - it begins with Grant on the train north to Scotland battling claustrophobia, a symptom of the mental breakdown brought on by overwork. Grant is present when a body is discovered on the train and leaves as he's not on duty and consumed by his illness. However he has accidentally picked up the dead man's newspaper and the scrawled lines of poetry catch at his imagination and his desire to find out more about the man becomes the thread that lead him back to health. That thread takes him to places unrelated to the mystery but, in bringing him a cure, are vital to the mystery's solution. A lovely book.… (more)
LibraryThing member nordie
From my book group, via my TBR shelf. Due to her need for privacy, Tey is not an author (or book) with a heavy internet presence. This is the sixth, and last book in the Grant series.

There is a slight spoiler later in this review, so please bear in mind when reading further.

Having taken sick leave from Scotland Yard for his "nerves" (what would be called stress and anxiety disorder now), Grant travels to Scotland to visit his cousin Laura and her family, and get in some fishing. He is struggling with insomnia and claustrophobia, leading to panic attacks and a desperate need to get outside.

On his way off the train, the carriage porter tries to rouse one of the other passengers, only for Grant to point out he's dead. Doing his best to keep out of it - helped by an unsympathetic superior, the wide openness of the Scottish Lowlands, and the time and silence he needs to relax - it's weeks and some travelling around for Grant to get a handle on who the dead man is, and the significance of the poetry found in the train cabin.

Meanwhile a new visitor in the shape of Lady Zoe, peaks his interest, and he begins to wonder whether he should retire whilst he has the chance to "love and be loved". Grant is unable to leave the death be, especially after meeting the dead man's best friend Tad. He therefore returns to London and works through the issue via unofficial channels.

This is a very internally driven novel - there is a lot of soul searching and working through issues by Grant, with plenty of dialogue between himself and his subconscious.

The final denouement was a little disappointing in that Grant doesnt really identify the murderer - he has taken a dislike to a certain individual and has a suspicion, but nothing to prove it. The reveal comes late in the story after an announcement in the paper, and when the murderer has slipped out of his hands (and his vanity believes that he has died having committed the perfect murder).
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