The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey

The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey is a vintage mystery set in the highlands of Scotland. Tey was the pseudonym for Elizabeth MacKintosh, a Scottish-born mystery writer. The Singing Sands is MacKintosh’s final novel and was published after her death in 1952.

The adventure begins when Inspector Alan Grant heads north on doctor’s orders for a restful break in the highlands. His work at Scotland Yard has had a negative effect on his nerves and he hopes that several weeks of fishing and time with his cousin’s family will be just the recovery he needs. However, on his way north he encounters a dead body on the train, along with a piece of verse written on a newspaper found nearby. Although Grant is on holiday he can’t shake the dead man from his mind, nor can he erase the lines of the verse (which include “the singing sands”) from his head.

MacKintosh intersperses beautiful descriptions of the Scottish highlands with her telling of Grant’s holiday with his relatives and how he begins to casually investigate what he believes to have been a murder. Little by little Grant heads in the right direction and finds his holiday including a trip to the Hebrides and eventually a return to London where he must convince the authorities that the man on the train was indeed murdered and did not die of natural causes. The case seems impossible to solve but with the help of a fellow holiday-maker Grant is able to bring the mystery to an end.

“So Grant had the island to himself, and for five days in the company of the whooping wind he quartered his bleak kingdom. It was rather like walking with a bad-mannered dog; a dog that rushes past you on narrow paths, leaps on you in ecstasy so that you are nearly knocked over, and drags you from the direction in which you want to go.”

“He washed in the two pints of tepid water that Katie-Ann brought him and went downstairs rejoicing. He felt on top of the world. He ate the Glasgow bread, still another day older this morning, and the Edinburgh oatcakes, and the Dundee jam, and the Canadian butter, together with some sausages from the English midlands, and enjoyed them. Having given up his expectation of primitive elegance, he was prepared to accept primitive existence.”

Travel Notes: perfect reading for travels in the Highland and Islands as Inspector Grant flies over to a small Hebridean island in his quest for the “singing sands.” Apparently, the Isle of Eigg has “singing sands” which you can visit.

The 39 Steps by John Buchan

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The 39 Steps by Scottish author John Buchan is a classic spy thriller included on many great Scottish reading lists. Written in an easy-to-read style, and at just 149 pages, this little novel is an excellent choice for light holiday (vacation) reading.

The story begins in the summer of 1914 in London where Richard Hannay is minding his own business but feeling he “was the best bored man in the United Kingdom.” Intrigue and adventure fall into his lap when he allows a man from the street into his flat (apartment). The man, Scudder, claims to have faked his own death in order to escape an international spy ring out to steal British political secrets. When Hannay finds his houseguest dead, he feels compelled to flee for his own life. He rushes off to the area of Galloway in southwestern Scotland, a fugitive on the run from the police.

More adventures ensue as Hannay flees from both the police and what now appears to be the international spy ring Scudder was afraid of. Hannay meets various people who help him allude his pursuers just in the nick of time. After many harrowing situations, including the need to build a simple bomb to escape imprisonment, Hannay is able to return to London where he alerts the government to the impending danger. However, it turns out the only way to prevent the top secret intelligence from leaving England is to decipher the meaning of the phrase “the 39 steps.” Can Richard Hannay find the answer in time?

This is a great vintage read, and if you find yourself becoming attached to the character of Richard Hannay you will be delighted to find that John Buchan wrote four more novels starring Hannay!

Travel notes: Much of this novel takes place in the region of Galloway. Richard Hannay takes dinner at a pub in Moffat on his way south to London.