That this was a debut mystery shows through a little in some less-than-perfect pacing and a slightly odd storytelling viewpoint. but that is more than made up for by the vivid descriptions of 1920’s London, especially its theatreland and by the introduction of a strongly-drawn main character, Inspector Alan Grant. The plot is a little improbable and the solution is clumsy by the people and places feel real,
The book gets off to a slightly sluggish start, ameliorated by atmospheric descriptions of the rituals and entertainments associated with the process of patiently queuing in the rain in hope of gaining a theatre seat.
The scenes in the theatre, both when Grant meets the star of the show in her dressing room and then sees beyond her glamour in her final performance hum with life and lift the book.
The premise, an unknown man stabbed in a theatre queue by an unknown assailant, gives Grant the double challenge of identifying both parties. The manhunt that follows is methodical and sometimes ingenious but I didn’t find it engaging. Almost halfway through, something happened that twisted my understanding of what was going on and the story moved from relentless manhunt to something more complicated and whole new set of possibilities opened up.
The ending, although plausible, was clumsily handled by comparison to the rest of the plot and left me dissatisfied.
The main thing I took away from the book was Tey’s ability to bring people and places alive. Her main focus was Inspector Alan Grant, who appeared in six of her mystery books. I found that, the longer the book went on, the more I understood him and the less I liked him.
Grant is a charming but emotionally distant introvert who assess the world from behind an extrovert’s smile. He has the easy social grace of a man who went to the right schools, served as an officer in World War I and survived and who is financially independent. He lives alone. He appears to have no close friends and no lovers. He seems comfortable in his isolation, which he appears to experience as freedom.
Grant is seen by his colleagues and superiors at Scotland Yard as having ‘flair‘. This is something closely associated with imagination and therefore suspect if used too often but Grant’s charming, self-deprecating style convinces people to trust him. This surprised me as Grant’s first instinct, in most cases, is to lie to get what he wants. He’s almost pathologically incapable of a straightforward approach Even when he sets out to arrest a man and has a warrant in his pocket, he relies on subterfuge rather than just serving the warrant and making the arrest. He picks subordinates who share his talent for trickery and lies and he and they default to covert methods of investigation. Yet Grant’s public face is one of firm-but-fair open-minded rectitude.
It seems to me that the real Grant is what he refers to as ‘his watcher’ who always sit back and assesses people and situations dispassionately. This ‘watcher’ is not passive. Grant is an ambush predator. His watcher is always scenting for prey and looking for ambush points.
I had the same experience watching Grant that he had when watching the charismatic actress’ final performance. I saw past the glamour to the clever predator hiding in the shadows.
I was perhaps helped in this by the fact that Grant is a man of times and class. His judgements are based on crude stereotypes about race and class that mean the world he sees is not really what’s in front of him. He suspects the foreigner and constantly refers to the suspect, even after he knows his name, as ‘the Dago’. He under-estimates women and is completely unconscious of his own privilege.
Of course, Grant as privileged English predator may have been exactly what Tey intended me to see. My dislike of Grant is a sign of how strongly drawn he is. I’ll read the next book in the series just to see what happens to him.