A newspaper article titled "Murder Mystery" begins the novel, reporting of the murder of Mary Turner at the farm at Ngesi, Southern Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe), where she lived with her husband, Richard "Dick" Turner; their African houseboy has confessed to the crime. After Mary's body is discovered on the front veranda of her house by her farm workers, the workers come to neighboring farmer Charlie Slatter to apprise him of the incident; he sends a messenger to alert police sergeant Denham and drives himself to the Turner farm.
Slatter—who was an enterprising grocer's assistant in London and since his arrival in Africa a highly successful but brutal farmer—arrives on the scene; he inspects Moses, the expressionless suspect already arrested by native policemen, and takes Dick Turner, who has clearly been driven insane, into his car.
Tony Marston—an Englishman like Slatter, but much better-mannered gentler—is a more recent arrival in Southern Rhodesia and had been working for the Turners for three weeks at the time of the murder. He wants to adapt to the country and its culture, but he finds himself running up against many ominous and impenetrable points; the strange expressions he notices on Slatter's and Sergeant Denham's faces as they look at the three people involved in the murder—Dick Turner, Moses, and Mary Turner (i.e. her corpse)—conceal an understanding of race relations between whites and blacks with a frightening, unconscious grip over the minds of the men who have lived longer in the country than Martson has.
When the Sergeant questions him about the murder and any suspicious things he may have seen, Martson senses that he is being mocked and excluded from certain knowledge; in his discomfort and frustration, he ends up not saying what is on his mind: that the murder investigation should not be wrapped up as simply as Slatter and Denham consider it, for Mary Turner must have had more involvement than they are willing to admit.
In the aftermath of the murder, he leaves in hope of finding higher-paying work at copper mines, but he only runs into more disenchanting frustrations there.
Chapter 2 tells the story of Mary as she grows up in South Africa and comes to marry Dick Turner.
Mary is born the third and youngest child of a railroad pumpman and his wife. Both of her parents are from South Africa, but Mary thinks of England as home. The store in her dorp (i.e. town) represents the center of her life from her childhood on; it is where her father goes to drink, spending too much of their family's money; where her mother goes to publicly complain about this; and where her parents go to struggle to pay their bills. Her parents constantly quarrel over money except for a brief period after Mary's two older siblings, with whom she was never close, die from dysentery; Mary remembers this as the happiest time of her childhood.
Her family moves around several times, and then she goes to school. At sixteen, she leaves school and goes on her own to an office town to take a steady job. Eventually, she works her way up to a position as the personal secretary of her employer; she is respected for her efficient work ethic and generally takes for granted her freedom as a single white woman. She lives in a girls' club with other mostly younger women and shows little interest in society or marriage. All in all, she maintains a girlish image of herself, even as she passes her thirtieth birthday.
Her satisfied self-conception is shattered one day when she overhears two of her friends gossiping maliciously about her. She finally allows a man, a widower with children, to court her; she does fine as a companion for him and his family, but when he tries to make love to her, she flees in disgust. Thus, the relationship falls through.
By chance, Mary meets a single farmer, Dick Turner, when he comes to town one day to see a film at the cinema. Dick feels claustrophobic in the city but nevertheless finds himself drawn back to it. He is drawn to Mary because of her beauty but also on account of his loneliness. He proposes to her, she accepts, and they decide to marry simply and swiftly.
Doris Lessing opens her novel with an efficient and haunting depiction of the racist society of South Rhodesia. Using a sensational newspaper blurb about the murder of Mary Turner by her houseboy Moses, Lessing sets up a story against which she tells her own tale; if we return to this first paragraph after finishing the novel, we find that there is nothing strictly incorrect about it, but, as the first sentence of narration—"The newspaper did not say much" (9)—foreshadows, the "truer" story lies beneath these seemingly easily interpretable facts.
The key sentence in that opening newspaper blurb it that "No motive has been discovered" (ibid). Such an unknown variable, a void in the middle of the story is what makes it a "Murder Mystery" (its title); and indeed, the title of the novel itself—"The Grass is Singing," drawn from T.S. Eliot's famous poem of Western decline, The Waste Land—comprises part of a funeral and apocalyptic image of societal collapse. For most South Rhodesian readers of the newspaper, as Lessing's narrator tells us, their racial prejudices make quick work of filling in this hole with received notions concerning Moses, a black man, and his relation to Mary, a white woman. In contrast to this is another group, the neighbors of the Turners, who have had the opportunity to observe something that complicates this story.
In the beginning, Lessing withholds from the reader the information about Mary's tortuous obsession with Moses. This serves her aim of using the slow-acting, transformative power of the narrative character development (i.e. Mary) to dissolve prejudiced preconceptions to their core. Readers will ultimately discover the moral failings of the group of neighboring farmers in their privileged position of knowledge of the Turners: although they may have observed enough to come to the same terrible self-critical conclusion the novel tries to convey, their unwillingness to confront the true image of their own cruelty and hypocrisy makes them just as blind as those who know no more than the newspaper article. "It was as if they had a sixth sense which told them everything that was to be known, although the three people in a position to explain the facts said nothing. The murder was simply not discussed" (ibid).
In a society bound by such taboos and whitewashed with such prejudices, from what position, we may ask, is one—whether as a reader living in a very different context or as someone living in the same society—able to gain clear moral perspective? Moreover, how is this to be achieved in a work of fiction, as opposed to an overtly polemical or didactic piece of writing? Lessing's answer is an understated but unmistakable sense of irony that not only gives us information about the particular ways in which racism works but also does so in a way that conveys the cognitive dissonance, the psychological strain that animates such a system of oppression.
For example, in describing Dick Turner, who has gone insane, the narrator writes: "They [the policemen] let him be, while keeping an eye on him, for he was a white man, though mad, and black men, even when policemen, do not lay hands on white flesh" (12-13). The formulation of the latter part of this sentence is ominously ambivalent in its meaning: it could be describing a state of affairs in which black men do not tend to lay hands on white flesh, but it could also be paraphrasing a (tacit) directive, that black men are not to lay hands on white flesh.