A wonderful opening pulled me straight into the 1920s. And straight into London’s theatreland.
It was beautifully written and it was clear that Josephine Tey, already a successful playwright, knew and loved the world she was writing about. And that she understood the importance of the big picture, of the small things, and of the psychology of her characters.
And in the very first chapter there was the crime. Such an elegant, clever scenario:
” ‘Chap fainted,’ said someone. No one moved for a moment or two. Minding one’s own business in a crowd today is as much an instinct of self-preservation as a chameleon’s versatility. Perhaps someone would claim the chap. But no one did; and so a man with more social instinct or more self-importance than the rest moved forward to help the collapsed one. He was about to bend over the limp heap when he stopped as if stung and recoiled hastily. A woman shrieked three times horribly; and the pushing, heaving queue froze suddenly to immobility.
In the clear white light of the naked electric in the roof, a man’s body, left alone by the instinctive withdrawal of the others, lay revealed in every detail. And rising slant-wise from the grey tweed of his coat was a little silver thing that winked wickedly in the baleful light.
It was the handle of a dagger.”
An audacious murder, in the middle of a queue of people, all pressing forward, eager to see the final performance of popular musical.
The investigation fell to Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard. A detective without the gimmicks, or idiosyncracies of many of his contemporaries, but with a great deal of intelligence and charm, I soon suspected that his creator was a little in love with him … quite understandably …
There was little physical evidence, little witness evidence, but a careful, methodical investigation began, and in time the dead man was identified, his life examined, and suspects identified.
Often the story was quiet, but it was always engaging.
The characters were so well drawn, and they always offered me a question to ponder.
There were some great moments and some lovely diversions: a trip to the Highlands of Scotland in pursuit of a fleeing suspect stood out for me.
And the writing was wonderful. Josephine Tey wrote such lovely prose, balancing rich descriptions and perfectly observed dialogue, with intelligence and wit always threaded through.
Elements of the modern police procedural can be seen, but this is very much a book of its time. The language, the world it describes tie it to the 1920s, and references to the Great War emphasise its lasting impact on a generation.
I was caught up in that world, and with Inspector Grant and his investigation.
The resolution owed as much to luck – or maybe policeman’s instinct – as solid police work.
I didn’t mind that, but it did confirm my feeling that this was a good book rather that a great book.
And certainly more than good enough to make sure that I will read my way through the rest of the series …