Monday, February 14, 2011

In The Spotlight: Josephine Tey's The Man In The Queue

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Although she wasn’t as prolific as some other Golden Age authors, Scottish author Elizabeth Mackintosh, who often wrote under the pseudonym of Josephine Tey, had a profound influence on later writers. Her work isn’t as well known as that of some of her contemporaries, but she certainly made contributions to the genre. So let’s take a closer look today at The Man in the Queue (AKA Killer in the Crowd ), Tey’s first novel featuring Inspector Alan Grant.

As the novel begins, a large London crowd is waiting at the Woofington Theatre to see the final performance of Didn’t You Know? starring Ray Marcable, the sensation of the moment. The doors finally open and the crowd surges forward to take their seats. Just then, a man who’s been waiting with the others slumps forward, dead. Someone in the crowd stabbed him while everyone was pushing forward. No-one standing near the man claims to know him, so the police have to start by finding out who the dead man was. Superintendent Barker of Scotland Yard gives the case to Inspector Alan Grant, who begins to try to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Before long, Grant discovers that the dead man was small-time bookmaker Albert Sorrell, who shared lodgings with Jerry Lamont, another bookmaker. The evidence that Grant gradually finds seems to show that Lamont was Sorrell’s killer. Several witnesses claim that Lamont had joined the crowd and that he and Sorrell had had an argument. Furthermore, evidence shows that Sorrell’s killer was left-handed (which Lamont is) and probably cut himself with the murder weapon (Lamont’s got a wound in the place where the killer would have been injured). There’s other damning evidence, too. So Grant becomes quite certain that Lamont’s the murderer – especially when Lamont disappears.

Grant traces Lamont to Scotland where he catches the suspect. On the way back to London, Lamont claims that he’s innocent, but that he knows no-one will believe him. Grant, who has no desire to imprison or execute an innocent man, agrees to hear Lamont out. By the time their return journey ends, Grant begins to believe he may have the wrong man. Now he has to go back over the case from the beginning to see what he missed and find out who really killed Albert Sorrell and why. By this time, too, Lamont’s been charged with murder and his trial’s coming up. So Grant will have to act fast if he’s going to find out the truth in time to save Lamont. In the end, and after some proverbial wrong turns, Grant learns who the murderer was and what the motive was.

Albert Sorrell was murdered in front of a crowd of witnesses, none of whom seems to have seen much that was useful. So one of the elements that we see in this novel is the use of what Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot calls “the psychological moment.” That’s a moment where everyone’s attention is so fixed on something that no-one pays attention to anything else. In this case, everyone’s pressing forward to try to get into the theatre to see Didn’t You Know? So nobody notices much about the other people, nor about what else is happening. It’s a brilliant moment for the killer to strike.

Another element that we see in this novel is set of interesting characters, especially the character of Alan Grant. When he realises that he may have arrested the wrong person for the crime, we see how upset he is and how the crime continues to haunt him.

“What had he left undone? What possible avenue of exploration had he left untravelled? He tried deliberately to stop himself from further questioning, to accept the general theory that the police case was too good to be other than true…But it was no use. The feeling that there was something wrong somewhere always flowed back the minute he stopped bullying himself.”

It’s easy to admire a police detective who’s so determined to get at the truth and in fact, Grant is much harder on himself than anyone else is on him. And we can respect his perseverance when, even after Lamont’s trial has begun, Grant keeps searching for the truth.

There are several other interesting characters in the novel, too. For instance, Sorrell and Lamont’s landlady Mrs. Everett is a very interesting character who knows more than she says at first, and plays a role in Grant’s search for the truth. And then there’s her niece Miss Dinmont. She’s a nurse who is visiting her family’s home in Scotland during Lamont’s stay there. When he’s injured, it’s Miss Dinmont who looks after him until he’s well enough for Grant to return with him to London. Miss Dinmont is intelligent and shrewd, and although she, too, believes Lamont is guilty of murder at first, she travels from Scotland to London to attend his trial and hear the evidence for herself. Grant describes her as “self-contained,” and she’s more than a match for his own wits.

Another element in this novel is the question of who’s really right and wrong. When we find out who killed Albert Sorrell and why, it’s easy to identify with the motive. We feel sympathy for the killer. We also get a completely different view of Sorrell from the one the police have at first. In fact, the last lines of the novel express this question very well:

“‘It has been a queer case, but the queerest thing about it is that there isn’t any villain in it.’

‘Isn’t there?’ Grant said with that twist to his mouth.

Well, is there?”

Several of the characters behave in what you might call morally ambiguous ways, and there’s quite a lot of “food for thought” about whether actions we might think of as wrong are ever the right thing to do.

In many ways, this is a police procedural. So the reader follows Grant and his team as they interview witnesses, wait for fingerprint analysis and collect evidence. There’s an interesting sense of urgency, too, as the evidence seems to point squarely to Lamont while at the same time, Grant wonders whether Lamont is being “railroaded” by the very police procedures that Grant’s team has undertaken.

There’s a sense of place, too; Tey gives readers a strong sense of the setting. Here, for instance, is a bit of Grant’s trip to Nottingham to follow up on a lead:

“In a little side street, near the castle – the kind of street that has never seen a tramcar and where one’s footsteps echo until one involuntarily looks behind – were situated the small and gloomy offices of Yeudall, Lister & Yeudall.

The story takes place in London and a few other places in England as well as in Scotland. However, Tey distinguishes clearly among the various locations in the story, so that the reader isn’t confused about where the action is taking place.

The solution of the mystery is a surprise, and for some readers, it may be disappointing. It’s not an “out of the blue” solution, but it’s also not a solution that results from painstaking work or a sudden awareness of the real meaning of a clue. That said, though, it does fit in with the questions the story raises about what “counts” as right or wrong.

But what’s your view? Have you read The Man in the Queue? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 21 February/Tuesday 22 February – Exit Music – Ian Rankin

Monday 28 February/Tuesday 1 March – The Cat Who Could Read Backwards – Lilian Jackson Braun

Monday 8 March/Tuesday 9 March – The Case of the Missing Servant: From the Files of Vish Puri, Most Private Investigator – Tarquin Hall


  1. Another author to add to my must-read. I went on your Goodread profile and haven't found many reviews. You should post these spotlights on the matching novels because they are amazing.

  2. Clarissa - Thanks for that idea. I hadn't thought about doing that before, especially because these posts get rather long for Goodreads. Still I really appreciate the very kind words :-). I'll have to ponder that one...

  3. I'm sure I have read this as Tey was one of the crime writers approved of by my local librarian back in the day but I can't recall a single detail of it. You've made it sound very good though

  4. Adored this book--many years ago. I think I read all of Josephine Tey one summer when I stayed in a rented summer house packed full of great mysteries. I can still remember some of those scenes. After Dorothy Sayers, I think Josephine Tey is my favorite of the classic mystery writers. Thanks for this. I might have to go back and re-read it.

  5. Bernadette - It really is an interesting book, and perhaps more than the mystery, what's interesting is the questions that it raises. It's got some flowery prose that some of today's modern readers wouldn't as much care for, but I do like the characters.

    Anne - Oh, that sounds like an absolutely lovely summer! I want to do that sometime! :-). And I agree that Dorothy Sayers wrote some fantastic stories. I think that Tey had in common with Sayers that they focused more on characters than some other writers of the day did.

  6. Haven't read this one and your statement on the ending makes me curious. I'll have to look it up--thanks!

  7. Another book to add to my wish list and another 'new to me' author. I enjoy your spotlights because I always find an interesting new author and an intriguing book.

    Thoughts in Progress

  8. Elizabeth - It really is an interesting study of how we think of "the right thing to do," and "good guys and bad guys." The mystery - the crime itself - is (and I admit, this is just my opinion) almost not as interesting as those larger questions.

    Mason - Thank you :-). I think that's one thing I like most about the mystery/crime fiction genre. There are so many great authors and novels to explore.

  9. The Teys I remember most our FRANCHISE AFFAIR and DAUGHTER IN TIME. But they were all terrific.

  10. I read this book back when I discovered that Alan Grant (who I knew from THE DAUGHTER OF TIME) appeared in other Tey mysteries. She was a superb writer with a wry sense of humour. Have you read her MISS PYM DISPOSES? Not an Alan Grant mystery, but it's up there among my all time favourites.

  11. Patti - Oh, those are good 'uns, too. Thanks for reminding me of them :-).

  12. Elspeth - I agree; Tey had a terrific sense of humour. Well, I think so, anyway :-). Hmm.... Miss Pym Disposes..... It certainly sounds familiar, but if I did read it, it was a l-o-o-n-g time ago. Must go back and dig it up...

  13. Ooh, I haven't read this one, but I loved her novel exploring the history of the Princes in the Tower. And you'll be doing a Lilian Jackson Braun I haven't read yet either! I'll see if I can pick it up at a second hand bookstore before then. Love the Cat Who books!

  14. Deniz - Tey certainly had talent, didn't she? And I've not paid much attention to cosy mysteries on this feature, so I thought it was about time I did. Lilian Jackson Braun is one of the best-known cosy writers there is, so it just made sense to include one of hers.

  15. That sounds like a really good book. Am going to put it on my TBR list!

  16. Rayna - It really raises some very interesting questions! I hope you will enjoy it.