The June theme for the Tuesday Night Bloggers is Murder in Academia. As a teacher, I love the idea of murder taking place at school. I can tell you from personal experience that the plethora of bizarre personalities and the escalating tensions that occur, both naturally and unnaturally, over the course of a school year, certainly lend themselves to potential homicide. Yet, most of my experience with such mystery literature have been of the more modern variety: the glorious Maggie Ryan mysteries by P.M. Carlson, Well-Schooled in Murder by Elizabeth George, Shroud for a Nightingale by P.D. James, to name a few. The only Golden Age title I can think of is Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, which I adore, but which is late Christie and a bit problematical. And so, this topic has given me a chance to introduce myself to some new/old authors. Last week, it was Stuart Palmer and his caustic schoolmarm Hildegarde Withers in The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan. This week, I head into completely different territory with Miss Pym Disposes, my first novel by Josephine Tey.
I understand from my friends who attended the “Bodies in the Library” conference in London last weekend that a biography of Tey will be published soon, which will hopefully illuminate much about an author who strove throughout her life to be a private person. What I learned this week is that she is one of the least prolific of the classic authors, having only penned eight mystery novels amongst her writings, that she studied at the Anstey Physical Training College and started her professional life as a games mistress, and that she quit her job and nursed her invalid mother until she died and then became a writer while she kept house for her father.
Some of this clearly figures into Miss Pym Disposes, which is set at Leys, a college similar to Anstey, where girls study the physical sciences and seem to spend a lot of time in athletic and terpsichorean pursuits. The students’ expectation after four grueling years is to be placed in a good job as a teacher or medical worker. Into this setting comes Lucy Pym, a slightly plump, slightly middle-aged and wholly amiable woman who had to set aside her goal of teaching French after her remaining parent’s death and, much to her great surprise, has written a best seller that has set the world of psychology on its ear. Ley’s headmistress, Henrietta Hodge, invites Lucy, her old school chum, to give a lecture to the girls about her book right before they head into final exams.
The lecture is such a rousing success that Miss Pym is invited by the staff and the adoring students to stay on and observe all the ceremonies and celebrations connected with the Senior class graduating. Over the course of a fortnight, Miss Pym develops a deep connection with the residents of the college and uses her skills as an amateur psychologist to observe them. The joke here is thatMiss Pym is an utter failure as a psychologist as, one by one, she misinterprets and misunderstands nearly every person she meets. In the end, she must admit: “As a psychologist, she was a first-rate teacher of French.”
One wonders if Tey was a bit leery about the science as well. One character, an intriguing Latin exchange student named Teresa Desterro, sums up to Miss Pym why she has such antipathy for the subject of Lucy’s book and only pays heed to her anatomy class: “Today’s idea may be nonsense tomorrow, but a clavicle is a clavicle for all time.” And yet, there’s no doubt as to how psychologically astute the author herself is. The characters and their relationships come to life brilliantly on the page in a way that makes the people and shenanigans at Meadowbanks School in Cat Among the Pigeons, fun as they are, seem inane by comparison. (It’s actually almost impossible to compare the two books, since Christie’s is a mish-mash of spy thriller and whodunit, while I would call Miss Pym Disposes a novel first, and a mystery second.) Tey juggles a large cast of characters so well. Miss Pym, as a guest, takes part in gatherings of staff and students alike, and each scene conveys a distinct understanding of the differences between teachers and students, girls and women. Minor characters, like parents and acquaintances of the staff, are especially well drawn. We meet mothers and fathers who understand their children more than a teacher might think they do. Late in the novel, we meet an actor, a matinee idol who is just about past his prime, as legitimately charming as he is altogether egocentric, and his scene with Miss Pym is both hilarious and oddly touching.
Yes, there is a murder, although it happens very late in the game, and there is a culprit, whose unmasking, I have to say, made me sit bolt upright in bed, a pleasant chill running down my back. There is a wealth of incident throughout that had me turning the pages in great suspense and amusement. Yet, above all else, this is a novel of character. It is about friendship, between girls and between women, and how the events and feelings in our lives come back to haunt our closest relationships. At a pivotal moment in the story, Henrietta makes a decision that stirs great feelings of shock and anger throughout the school, and Lucy, who agrees with the community, attempts to change her old friend’s mind.
“It surprised her to find that an interview with Henrietta on this footing brought back a school-girl qualm that had no place in the bosom of any adult . . . she had looked up to Henrietta as a person of superior worth to her own, and the habit of mind acquired at school stayed with her.”
As Lucy pleads with Henrietta, we find ourselves casting the same doubts on the headmistress’ ability to objectively make a proper decision . . . until we hear her reasons for her choice and understand that, from her point of view, she is doing the right thing. The whole novel is about people having to make these sorts of decisions about crucial aspects of their lives, about love, about work, about justice. It all culminates with Lucy Pym having to make the hardest decision of all as she holds the key to the truth of the crime, literally, in her hands. She ends up asking the advice of Miss Desterro’s handsome young suitor.
“I have to do something right,” she said slowly, “and I’m afraid of the consequences.”
“Consequences to you?”
“No. To other people.”
“Never mind; do it.”
Miss Pym put plates of cakes on a tray. “You see, the proper thing is not necessarily the right thing. Or do I mean the opposite?”
Nearly every character is faced with a similar weighty dilemma, and the choices they make have serious consequences, some of them delightful and others devastating. That sense of devastation surrounds us at the end, but Tey is also gentle with the reader, wrapping the difficult lesson Miss Pym learns about herself and other people in delightful prose, full of genuine humor and insight into the impulses, both light and dark, that govern the way we think, feel, and act.
Miss Pym Disposes takes its place as one of my very favorite reads in a long time. It is classified as a mystery, and I’ll go along with that up to a point. But it accomplishes so much more than the solving of a crime. It shines a light on humanity as any great novel does. At the very least, it shows those of us who have recently engaged in a spirited conversation about how much character, setting and “larger ideas” fit into the plot-centric requirements of a good mystery that one can indeed illuminate a great deal about life and people and still send chills down a reader’s back.
14 thoughts on “Man Proposes, Miss Pym Disposes”
Oh Brad! I’m afraid it is one of those rare moment where we don’t see eye to eye. Regardless of Tey’s skill in characterisation I find Miss Pym one of the most infuriating amateur sleuths ever, who is so keen to be liked by and identified with the girls (who seem to only esteem her for her taste in dresses) that she ends up obstructing justice and causing unnecessary pain for others in a really annoying way. Think by the end of the book I didn’t have chills down my spine but an uncontrollable urge to either slap or throttle Miss Pym who dithers from here to next week and then skips off into the sunset forgetting about the damage she has caused.
*and breathe* Tey is a very beautiful writer though and I know her Daughters of Time novel is the one most recommended but I think my favourites would be A Shilling for Candles and The Singing Sands. The Franchise Affair also has a very good and quite unusual premise.
Kate, I don’t blame you for finding Miss Pym infuriating. This novel is really about her getting her comeuppance. That is why I feel this is much more of a straight novel than a mystery. We’re not going to see Lucy Pym trying to solve mysteries again anytime soon. She doesn’t even “try” to solve it actually; she lets things fall into her lap and then invariably makes the wrong decision about them. She “disposes” her sort of justice, despite Rick telling her that is only for God to do. And her method of disposition is to actually dispose of evidence . . . at least twice! Her problem, like so many teachers, (myself included on occasion) is that she wants to be liked, and it clouds her judgement horribly. Look at who her favorite student of all was!!! I won’t try and change your mind about this book, but I did find the whole thing tragic and poignant, and I was incredibly moved by it.
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I do get how this is a tragic and poignant book at times, but I think it is the students and what happens to them which is tragic and poignant rather than Miss Pym’s actions, as she in fact contributes to the tragedy making and isn’t even sorry about it. I think due to my personality and upbringing I perhaps have a greater need for my fictional sleuths to act and behave responsibly to a degree even if its not always conventionally. I don’t mind detectives being fallible but what annoyed me with Miss Pym is that she realised she screwed up so decided to add further to the screwed up state and then ultimately ran away back to London, quite happy to forget the destruction she caused. It’s that kind of irresponsibility which irritates me.
I think I would have enjoyed this book much more if it hadn’t been sold as a mystery novel; mind you, I think I would generally have enjoyed Tey much more if she hadn’t ben billed as a mystery novelist (but then would I have even picked her up…?). I can’t reasonably disagree with anything you’ve said here, but my abiding memory of this book is a lot of stuff going on in school and then a sudden murder in the final 40 pages with a telegraphed solution. Brat Farrar – discussed at Bodies from the Library – is the same with horses; lots about the horses, not much on the actual plot. Probably great as straight novels with a sudden soupcon of intrigue stirred in, but the detection fan in me was left rather too cold.
Perhaps in my dotage when I have developed this much-hyped “patience” I hear so much about I’ll return to Tey and find more in her to love. But at present I’m rather fixed on the subject despite, as I say, agreeing with pretry much every point you make here, Deduce from that what you will.
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Believe me, I knew as I was reading that this wasn’t a traditional mystery. It was the story of a woman getting the s**t kicked out if her, with assorted intrigues attached. I certainly expected more crime and detection, but once I relaxed and realized that Tey wasn’t operating this way, I enjoyed it for its language, it’s wit and its characters. In an ironic way, that made it much more revolutionary than this series of mysteries I’ve been reading that seem to have nothing going for them EXCEPT plot (although don’t get me wrong – I liked the plot if this book very much. Lots of stuff happens, and it interested me.)
Well then you’ll be delighted to know that there are plenty more non-traditional mysteries in the Tey output – just about everything, in fact. Given that she only wrote one ‘proper’ novel of detection under this nom de plume (The Franchise Affair), part of me wonders if she only ended up shoe-horned into the ‘crime writer’ cubbyhole simply because there’s no other way to succinctly classify her work. Hmmm, I feels a reevaluation of Josephine Tey coming on…
Great review! I haven’t read this particular book but I have enjoyed some of Tey’s other novels. One of the things I like about her books are her characterizations. I will definitely keep my eyes open for a copy of this one.
Thanks for reading. As I mentioned, this is the only Tey I have read, and the characters creep up on you, mostly because Miss Pym, who considers herself such a strong judge of character, is invariably wrong about people! This was something I loved about the book! 🙂
Now I really have to re-read this book, Brad. I have read and loved all the books by Tey, but have little memory of this one. The varying reactions in the comments have me curious.
Yes, Tracy, it’s a far more controversial title than I thought it would be!
I love this book as much as you did, and am fascinated by the comments, and particularly the well-argued criticisms. To me, the stunner in the book is Miss P’s final decision, that’s what gives me the chills, it’s a true shocker of an ending. Of course she shouldn’t have done that, but that’s what makes it so memorable. And it is convincing: she is that. weak shallow person.
Very interested to read your teacher’s eye view – makes perfect sense.
I have read this book many times and I’m sure will do so again.
We all know so little about Tey, Moira! Like, I wonder if she was a deeply religious person. It seems to me that the meaning of the title could go two ways: if Miss Pym were the ultimately wise detective Kate wishes she had been, the connection between Miss P. and God might be delivered with a mild twinkle, as in “Don’t worry, girls, Miss Pym will set things right.” As things turn out, Miss Pym makes decisions she has no right to make, and lives are ruined because of it. Those who find happiness do so without, or in spite of, her help. So the title is quite ironic!
Yet Miss Pym is essentially a good – and well-liked person. One wonders if Tey was as infuriated with Lucy as Kate is. She treats her gently and with humorat the end. And Miss Pym does acknowledge what a lousy psychologist she is. But the damage is done! I thought it was powerful!
I discovered Tey’s novels about 30 years ago, when I was a young adult, and was (and am) astonished by them. They are pretty much novels with a mystery element, with rich colorful characters — even her recurring lead, Inspector Grant, is a fallible human being with family connections.
After reading each of her novels, you are left with a special flavor, the way you are when you watch one of Billy Wilder’s films. Not the same kind of flavor — Wilder’s films have their own tinges and overtones, and Tey’s novels have their very different ones. But the flavors are unlike those of any other director or author.
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