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.