The look of horror on Albert Sorrell's face finally got to me. I'd been avoiding it for months since downloading The Man in the Queue on my laptop's Kindle app. Bulging out from features torqued into a grotesque, frozen mask of agony and terror, Sorrell's eyes stare at what can only be the portal to a hellish eternity. His lips are twisted into the contortion lips make when releasing the vocal accompaniment to unholy pain.
The Man in the Queue was the first of Josephine Tey's six "Inspector Alan Grant" mystery novels, and last remaining for me to read. I'd so enjoyed my introduction to the series, The Daughter of Time, I went ahead and read the others--except for The Man in the Queue. I started it, but abandoned it not far into the first chapter. I'd either had my fill of the Scottish author's verbose classical British style by then or else there was something different about this one, something that kept it from grabbing and holding me the way the others had.
Had I read a little further Tey's insults to my feminist sensibility might have put me off, with such observations as: "Let every female from here to Land's End have hysterics at once—he wouldn't care," and "He was waiting for the inevitable feminine outburst of `I don't believe it! He wouldn't do such a thing!' but it did not come." and, of course, ""Oh, if she doesn't like it," said Grant, "she can just fib and say she does, and we'll never be a bit the wiser. All women are expert fibbers."
Grant does run into a bit of opposition with that last comment:
"' Ark at 'im!" said Miss Lethbridge. "Poor disillusioned creature!"
"Well, isn't it true? Your social-life is one long series of fibs. You are very sorry—You are not at home—you would have come, but—you wish some one would stay longer. If you aren't fibbing to your friends, you are fibbing to your maids."
"I may fib to my friends," said Mrs. Ratcliffe, "but I most certainly do not fib to my maids!"
It might mitigate the affront to know The Man in the Queue was first published in 1929 and that Tey (whose real name was Elizabeth MacKintosh) used another of her pseudonyms, Gordon Daviot, and perhaps wished to convey a masculine tone to the narrative.
Once I moved past the first few pages and found myself grabbed and tugged along with the narrative, as in the others, I found the misogyny not as offensive as I surely would have were the novel more recent (I'm wondering now if it also appeared as obviously in the other Alan Grant mysteries and I wasn't paying close enough attention--if so, shame on me!). None of which explains what put me off The Man in the Queue so soon into the story. Maybe something so simple as this being Tey's debut novel and she hadn't gotten her style down quite right yet. In retrospect, The Man in the Queue did seem wordier and slower paced than the others. The next, A Shilling for Candles, came out in 1936, with the third, The Franchise Affair, in 1948, and the last three respectively in 1950, '51, and '52. My favorite of them all is The Daughter of Time (link to my review), in which Inspector Grant, hospitalized with a broken leg, attempts to solve the infamously mysterious murder of the "Princes in the Tower," blamed through the centuries on King Richard III. The British Crime Writers Association in 1990 voted it "The greatest mystery novel of all time." The Man in the Queue deserves to be honored if only for launching the career that gave us The Daughter of Time. But I did enjoy it, for itself and for having no longer to feel nagged by the hideous face of Albert Sorrell on the cover (I almost wrote gracing the cover).
And The Man in the Queue does exhibit most of Tey's strengths. Most immediately noticeable is her command of language. Some readers have complained her style required them to look up too many words. I had to look up a few; others I knew were unlikely to appear in an American dictionary, but I found the frequency of distinctly English vernacular, usage and idioms to be far less annoying than amusing. This, for example: "Well, it very nearly did for me," to mean, in my tongue, "very nearly did me in." Then there are the occasional British ideas of American customs, e.g. this exchange regarding the treatment of a murder suspect by the authorities:
"Is there any chance of their badgering him? Because I warn you he won't stand any badgering as he is now.
"Oh, no," Grant said; "this isn't America."
Then again, maybe the Brits did have a leg up on us regarding arrestees' rights: "You realize that what you say may be used against you?" Grant said. "Your lawyer would probably want you to say nothing. You see, it's putting your line of defence [sic] into our hands." We did not encode our "Miranda rights" until a Supreme Court decision in 1966.
Tey's descriptive powers were, to me, breathtaking. Immersed in the following description of a relatively minor character, I completely forgot I was reading a debut novel:
Ray Marcable trailed her loveliness over a nearly empty stage with that half-reluctant lightness of a leaf in the wind. She was always, when she danced, a mere fraction of a beat behind the music, so that it seemed as if, instead of being an accompaniment, the music was the motive power, as if it was the music that lifted and spun and whirled her, floated her sideways, and relinquished her gently as it died. Again and again at their vociferous demands the music lifted her into motion, held her laughing and sparkling and quivering, like a crystal ball held poised on a jet of water, and dropped her in a quick descending run to a fast-breathing stillness broken by the crash of the applause. They would not let her go, and when at last some one held her forcibly in the wings, and an effort was made to get on with the story, there was unconcealed impatience. No one wanted a plot tonight. No one had ever wanted one. Quite a large number of the most enthusiastic habitués were unaware that there was such a thing, and few, if any, would have been able to give a lucid account of it. And tonight to insist on wasting time with such irrelevance was folly.
Speaking of plots, I won't say much about the plotting in The Man in the Queue. It starts with an odd, unrealistic murder--unidentified man waiting in long line at a theater collapses dead with knife in back, no witnesses, no known motive, no suspect. Inspector Grant, using intuition and an incremental accumulation of apparent evidence, gradually builds a case against a suspect whom he eventually captures. Then hearing the suspect's story, begins to doubt he has the right man. The ending is less a surprise than those in most mysteries of this "classical" period, but one I found acceptable and even satisfying. All in all, it was the elegant writing and the vividly, unusually described characters I shall remember from The Man in the Queue, as I do from the other Inspector Grant novels I've read.
Classical whodunnits are not ordinarily my cup of tea, but Tey's I've found to be a delightful exception. I wanted to try a pun of some sort in the previous sentence, but was simply not up to the challenge. Were I Tey, I've no doubt 'twould've been a piece of shortbread. Cheerio, then...
[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]