RogerBW's Blog

Miss Pym Disposes, Josephine Tey 04 September 2022

1946 mystery. Lucy Pym's book on psychology proved to be an unexpected best-seller, and now she's a popular speaker. Henrietta, an old school friend, asks her to the physical training college that she runs, and she finds herself enchanted enough to stay on for a few days. But all is not well.

This is an odd and uncomfortable book. The major incident doesn't occur until more than three-quarters of the way through; Tey (or rather Elizabeth Mackintosh) had trained at the Anstey Physical Training College in Birmingham, and the atmosphere of this sort of all-female institution clearly comes from the life, not just the bells and communal baths but the sort of people who'd be part of it, students and staff.

(As a reasonably modern person I am forced to remember that of course all the staff must be unmarried women, and of course any of the students who got married would never use their training again… that's not something that needs to be mentioned here, because the contemporary reader would have known it.)

So mostly we get an outsider's view of this establishment and its people, filtered through Miss Pym's amateur psychology; she thinks that the pressure to excel, to get high marks on the final exams and then a few days later to perform in the public demonstration of gymnastics, dance, etc., would cause people to crack, but nobody else seems worried. Then occasional bad behaviour starts to surface, but in a way that's only visible to her as an outsider.

And this is where she loses one's sympathy: she has some hard decisions to make, and she consistently makes wrong decisions. When the girl who was to be sent to a plum posting, over the head of the one whom everyone thought "deserved" it, has an accident during gymnastics practice, only she finds a crucial piece of evidence…

Part of the problem is that, although Tey clearly knew she was writing for people who read detective stories and were thus used to weighing up what a piece of evidence might actually mean as distinct form what it might appear to mean, Miss Pym is not someone who thinks in this way. She jumps to conclusions, then wrestles with her conscience as to what she should do… then, having reached a decision, does something else anyway.

By the end, the murderer is not caught, and indeed will probably do it again some day. Someone else is suffering pointlessly. Everyone is unhappy. This is a book ahead of its time; for me it prefigures P. D. James's flavour of psychological mystery, much more about the observation of horrible people than about solving a crime.

As is common for books written near or during the Second World War, this book doesn't mention it, apart from a passing reference to tanks being moved from a factory. Usually that wouldn't be a problem, but in an establishment that makes a point of an unusual diet one can't help feeling that rationing would have been a significant consideration.

I can enjoy what's being done here, particularly the people and some of the side stories that don't get directly involved with the murder plot; in particular some of the minor characters are really interesting people, and I'd have liked to have read more about them. I can admire the observation of Miss Pym's character, even in the closing sentences which make it clear that she has learned nothing from all of this. But it's not a book I can love; indeed, it's one I'm rather less prone to re-read than I am the rest of Tey.

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