Friday 3 June 2016

Josephine Tey's The Man in the Queue

Have you seen this man?

The Man in the Queue
is Josephine Tey's first detective story, written in 1929. It starts colourfully with a London theatre queue inching slowly towards the box office, while a stream of buskers (singers, escapologists) attempts to entertain them. A pale young man reaches the head of the line only to collapse as the person in front of him moves on into the theatre – he has been stabbed in the back with a curiously wrought Italian stiletto!

Scotland Yard, in the person of Alan Grant and his Watson, Williams, are called in. Nobody in the queue claims the dead man – in fact the woman standing behind him, Mrs Ratcliffe, who was so distressed to find a corpse falling at her feet, claims she never even noticed him. All marks have been removed from his clothes, and he carried no wallet, letters – not even a bus ticket. They eventually identify him through his rather flashy tie, and establish that he was a bookie. Grant finds his partner, an olive-skinned fellow whom Grant dubs "the dago", and chases him on foot, but the young man manages to lose him. Grant finds the pair's office, and breaks in with the help of a scruffy artist, but they find nobody at home but a cat.

The "dago" is the prime suspect – as an obvious Spaniard, Frenchman, Italian or Greek a stiletto is his natural weapon. This is not exactly scientific detection, though it reflects the times. Throughout his career, Grant assumes that you can tell a lot about a person by the shape of their chin, or the colour of their eyes. In later editions, the "dago" is changed throughout to "Levantine". "Dago" is pejorative, but the editors probably didn't realise that in the 20s and 30s "Levantine" could be code for "Jew".

Back then, if you were olive-skinned and black-haired you needed a handy story to explain it away, as this colouring was assumed to be unBritish. “Shipwrecked sailors from the Spanish Armada” were usually pointed to, or “Phoenician traders”. (Our family cited "Huguenots fleeing persecution".) When we meet "the dago", Lamont, he seems like a nice young man, with a devoted Scottish landlady. He confesses to an Italian grandmother – but does that make him a murderer?

Grant interviews "Ray Marcable", the star of the show who is setting off to Hollywood, and decides that – though charming in person – her upstaging of her male costar proves that she is cold-hearted and unfeminine. There's an entertaining interlude while some undercover cops pose as door-to-door salesmen.

Grant runs doggedly after the elusive Lamont, ending up in the Scottish highlands. We are obviously supposed to love Grant, and Tey writes as if he was a real person whom she knows quite well. He would rather be riding a horse or gazing into a clear trout stream than solving crimes in grimy old London. He is obviously a gent, you see, unlike these seedy race track types. The trip to Scotland is an excuse for a lot of maundering about the mirrored surface of the loch etc.

We also stumble over more racist attitudes as the characters discuss whether it is better to be “mixed race”, meaning a mixture of Highland and Lowland, or Scots and English. Despite the rhapsodizing about the landscape, the indigenous Scots are made fun of – their language sounds like hens screeching, and their praising the Lord sounds dreary. (It's wild and wonderful.) Grant, once he has got his man, is aided by jolly decent toffs wearing tweeds, and a likeably down-to-earth nurse. She joins Grant at a seaside resort to try and surprise some suspects into betraying recognition of a hat brooch.

It's written as "Gordon Daviot", her play-writing pseudonym, which may explain the guff about trout streams. The women are feisty and in control, apart from the fainting Mrs Ratcliffe (I shall have to read it again to work out if she's just a red herring).

I enjoyed the book: it's dated, but what do you expect from 1929? Silly ideas like reading character from facial features were floating about, though probably not at Scotland Yard. Or at least, not since the 19th century. Another 1929 characteristic is a reliance on long words and classical allusions for humour, like a Victorian journalist. A chauffeur is called a "Jehu" – Victorian slang for a coachman (Jehu was a Biblical charioteer). In later books Tey was less reliant on words like "apotheosis", "embonpoint" and "recrudesce". (There is a flapper in Patrick Hamilton's Rope who talks like this.)

Did Lamont really do it? Did he have a good reason? Will he marry the practical Miss Dinmont? Read it and find out.

More mysteries here.


  1. Last time I read this I realized that I was expecting a quite other solution - surely there can't be another GA mystery with someone dying in a queue, can you think of any? I have a very clear memory of a different plot.
    Anyway, I can always see the problems and annoyances of Tey, but I still enjoy them hugely, and if I had to pick 50 books to re-read for the rest of my life there would be at least 2 of hers on the list, though not actually this one.
    Does the scruffy artist look like Struwwelpeter, hanging upside down over the stairs? I remember having to find out about Struwelpeter, goodness knows how, no Google back then.