A review of The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey
Josephine Tey, the pen name of Elizabeth Mackintosh, is a new author to me and after finishing her debut crime novel, published in 1929 which also went under the alternative title of Killer in the Crowd, I wondered why it had taken me so long to find her. This is an impressive piece of writing, the tone set at the outset with a wonderfully evocative set piece, a crowd queuing to gain entrance to see the final performance of a musical comedy, Didn’t You Know. Tey has a fine sense of place and time, her descriptions of London and the Highlands are compelling, and she understands the dynamics of a crowd as they wait patiently before their heady sense of anticipation gets the better of them as they reach the head of the queue and push to secure their entrance.
This is no ordinary queue, though. Someone in it is stabbed in the back with a distinctive dagger, the weight of the crowd propelling him forward for some minutes before he collapses. No one seems to know who he is, he has no means of identification on his person, and those nearest to him were too absorbed in their own thoughts to have a clear sense of what went on, although it seems that he had an argument with someone and that two people left the scene in a hurry.
The unenviable task of determining who the victim was, never mind who killed him and why, falls to Tey’s go-to detective, the suave, gentleman detective, Inspector Adam Grant. For many a modern reader the brilliance of the set up and the quality of the puzzle is somewhat diminished by a notorious paragraph in the second chapter, where Grant propounds the curious and, frankly, outrageous theory that no Englishman would ever stab someone in the back, a trait he assigns to someone of Latin or part Latin temperament. He uses a term that is both racist and xenophobic as a codename for the suspect, used persistently through the book even when the suspect’s identity is known. It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, but I find that, regrettable as it is, you have to recognise that those attitudes were reflective of the times that the book was written and the modern reader either has to put the book down or hold their nose.
After much effort Grant identifies the victim as Sorrell, a bookmaker, and his prime suspect as Lamont, his assistant. He tracks down Lamont to a bolthole in the Highlands and after a frantic chase over the boggy moors and then by boat, finally gets his man, who knocks himself unconscious as he desperately tries to get to the shore. Grant is so certain that Lamont is his man – he is part Italian and has a scar on his left hand which was caused in the act of stabbing, he had all Sorrell’s money, and he had quarrelled with the victim in the queue – but when he tells his story, professing his innocence, Grant is perplexed. Something is not quite right.
The resolution of the mystery shows that Grant was completely on the wrong track with his half-baked racist theory, a source of satisfaction for this reader, but Tey hardly plays fair with the reader. Some of the clues are there and the more acute reader would recognise that there is more than meets the eye to Tey’s development of the character of the female lead in the show, Ray Marcable, a stage name which plays on the word remarkable, but they would have to possess second sight to know the backstory that pieces all the clues together.
In fact, there is no detection in the resolution of the case, the culprit just walking in and confessing, giving the sense that it was almost an afterthought, which just sits there, at odds with the rest of the book. The occasional interruption in the flow of the narrative by a narrator, unnamed and barely heard otherwise, also points to some imperfections in the structure of the book. Perhaps Tey recognised these deficiencies as she did not write another murder mystery for several years.
These are minor quibbles, though. Tey writes with considerable verve and lucidity and with not a little humour, to produce a thrilling and entertaining novel. I shall look forward to renewing my acquaintance with Grant.