The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey ~ 1929. This edition: Berkely Medallion, 1971. Paperback. ISBN: 425-01873-3. 223 pages. Originally published as The Killer in the Crowd by Gordon Daviot, and released with the new title under the Josephine Tey pseudonym after author Elizabeth Macintosh’s death in 1959.
My rating: 7.5/10.
This was Josephine Tey’s (to use the author’s best-known pseudonym, though she apparently preferred “Gordon Daviot”) first full-length book, written very quickly, reputedly in two weeks, according to this internet source, Josephine Tey: A Very Private Person:
Tey started writing almost as soon as she could walk, according to a note from her literary agent, which also states that “writing was always her greatest amusement.” She published short stories and poems during the late 1920s in Scottish newspapers and in the English Review. Her first novel, The Man in the Queue, was published in 1929. It was reportedly written in two weeks for a competition sponsored by the publisher Methuen.
Tey’s first detective novel, The Man in the Queue – dedicated ‘To Brisena, who actually wrote it’ – Brisena was a nickname she gave to her typewriter – was a highly accomplished piece of work for a beginner. Winning the Dutton Mystery Prize, it was published in 1929 under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot—the name by which she preferred to be known, in both public and private.
Considering the time in which it was written, and the time frame it was written in, this novel is an accomplished piece of work, though it is far from flawless. I easily forgive the inconsistencies, because the writing is very good indeed, and I love seeing how the author progresses in her novels from the slight occasional awkwardnesses of this one to the sophistication of something like Brat Farrar, which I’ve just read as well, written twenty years later. This was a writer who continually honed and improved her craft; an admirable – and far from universal – thing.
The Man in the Queue starts out in front of popular London theatre, with a crowded line of hopeful people waiting for hours for a chance to see the most popular musical comedy show of the season, Didn’t You Know?, starring the lovely actress and dancer Ray Marcable (say it out loud – yes, it is what it looks like, though I didn’t twig myself until much later on in the story, when it was explained to me) in her last week of appearing in England before setting sail to try her luck in America.
It was between seven and eight o’clock on a March evening, and all over London the bars were being drawn back from pit and gallery doors. Bang, thud, and clank. Grim sounds to preface an evening’s amusement. But no last trump could have so galvanized the weary attendants on Thespis and Terpsichore standing in patient column of four before the gates of promise. Here and there, of course, there was no column. At the Irving, five people spread themselves over the two steps and sacrificed in warmth what they gained in comfort; Greek tragedy was not popular. At the Playbox there was no one; the Playbox was exclusive, and ignored the existence of pits. At the Arena, which had a three weeks’ ballet season, there were ten persons for the gallery and a long queue for the pit. But at the Woffington both human strings tailed away apparently into infinity. Long ago a lordly official had come down the pit queue and, with a gesture of his outstretched arm that seemed to guillotine hope, had said, “All after here standing room only.” Having thus, with a mere contraction of his deltoid muscle, separated the sheep from the goats, he retired in Olympian state to the front of the theatre, where beyond the glass doors there was warmth and shelter. But no one moved away from the long line. Those who were doomed to stand for three hours more seemed indifferent to their martyrdom. They laughed and chattered, and passed each other sustaining bits of chocolate in torn silver paper. Standing room only, was it? Well, who would not stand, and be pleased to, in the last week of Didn’t You Know? Nearly two years it had run now, London’s own musical comedy, and this was its swan song …
As the theatre doors finally open and the surging queue moves forward, another swan song is played out. A man gently slumps to the ground, having been held up by the press of the crowd. “He’s fainted!” is the murmur from the bystanders, until one of them noticed that between his shoulder-blades gleams the hilt of a silver dagger!
And we’re off. For the man in undeniably very dead indeed, and it appears that he has been so for some time. But who could have stabbed him in front of so many potential witnesses, and why didn’t he cry out? Who is the man, anyway, and why is he carrying no identification? And is that a loaded revolver in his pocket?!
Scotland Yard immediately takes charge, and it is up to Inspector Grant, guaranteed dependable and with a certain flair for successfully solving his cases, to identify the victim and inexorably hunt down the missing killer.
An excellent piece of “Golden Age” mystery writing, chock full of appalling-to-the-modern-sensibility racial profiling and sexist commentary, but great fun to any lover of this most engaging genre. I must say I was completely stumped by the surprise ending; I was completely taken with the huge, stinking red herring which the author paraded about to confuse the plot; I did NOT guess the murderer until the final denouncement and explanation.
Inspector Grant, in his first appearance on the page, is rather Holmesian in style, consulting with the examining surgeon and coming up with some rather surprising assumptions, based on appearances alone. “Scientific”? Oh, dear …
“Can you tell me anything about the dead man himself?” asked Grant, who liked to hear a scientific opinion on any subject.
“Not much. Well nourished – prosperous, I should say.”
“Yes, very, I should think.”
“What type of occupation, do you mean?”
“No, I can deduce that for myself. What type of – temperament, I suppose you’d call it?”
“Oh, I see.” The surgeon thought for a moment. He looked doubtfully at his interlocutor. “Well, no one can say that for a certainty – you understand that?” And when Grant had acknowledged this qualification: “but I should call him one of the ‘lost cause’ type.” He raised his eyebrows interrogatively at the inspector and, assured of his understanding, added, “He had practical enough qualities in his face, but his hands were a dreamer’s. You’ll see for yourself.”
Together they viewed the body. It was that of a young man of twenty-nine or thirty, fair-haired, hazel-eyed, slim, and of medium height. The hands, as the doctor had pointed out, were long and slim and not used to manual work …
Nice “scientific” work, you two. And if you thought this was a little too good to be true, just wait until you read about the assumptions made once the murder weapon is considered…
Very good stuff, in a completely “vintage read” sort of way. A definite must-read for the Tey fan, to track where the author came from, as it were, and to realize the huge strides she made in her writing career. Decidedly decent indeed for a first book; the others only get better.
And here, for your enjoyment and further enlightenment, are some grand reviews by other bloggers: