Miss Pym Disposes

One more review before I write some wrap-up posts about the year. I’ve owned a copy of Josephine Tey’s book Miss Pym Disposes for quite a while and finally got around to pulling it off the shelves. I very much enjoyed the book, but I spent much of my time reading it wondering why it’s called a mystery novel. By the end, it began to make a little more sense, but it’s best to think of this book as a regular old novel with some crime in it. Those of you who have read other Josephine Tey novels, is she always like this?

But that’s not to say I didn’t like it. The setting is very interesting, first of all: it takes place in a women’s physical training college. The young women learn dance, gymnastics, and various types of sports, as well as anatomy and the basics of medical training. They keep to a very rigorous schedule of physical and mental training, of the sort that, athletic as I can be, would wear me out in no time. They will leave the school ready to teach physical education and to work in medical clinics. It’s a close-knit school, where the smallness and the rigors of the training bring the students and teachers close together.

Miss Pym is friends with the school’s headmistress, and she has been invited to give a lecture on psychology. Lucy Pym became an expert in psychology largely by having enough leisure to read everything published on the subject (Tey’s novel was published in 1946, so perhaps the field hadn’t grown that much by then?), to have an idea of her own, and to turn that idea into a best-selling book. The best-seller part was a complete surprise to her; she had merely wanted to express her opinions. But now she is an expert, and in demand for lectures, and so she finds herself at the college, rudely awakened by the 5:30 wake-up bell.

She is so horrified by that 5:30 bell that all she want to do is to get home immediately, but the students beg her to stay, and when she does, she finds herself more and more caught up in the life of the school. She’s fascinated by the question of what type of young woman would thrive in such a school and how each one keeps up the energy and spirits to make it through the program.

The early parts of the book explore college life and Lucy’s increasing attachment to it, and they do so at a leisurely pace, although never one that is dull. The excitement begins to build, however, when Lucy observes one student attempt to cheat during an exam she is proctoring. Around the same time, everyone learns that a post will be available at the prestigious school of Arlinghurst, the girls’ equivalent of Eton. These events quickly destroy the school’s peace, and Lucy finds herself in the middle of it all.

Lucy’s status as an expert in psychology becomes a way for Tey to explore the value of the discipline; in this close-knit community where the tensions are rising, Lucy is perfectly situated to observe the mental and emotional turmoil around her. And yet, as it turns out, people are much more mysterious and unknowable than the discipline allows for. And here is where the real mystery of the book lies: not so much in the question of who committed the crime — although that is a very interesting question — but in the question of how much it’s possible to know about another person.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

10 responses to “Miss Pym Disposes

  1. What an interesting sounding book! The thought that someone could have read everything on a given subject blows me away. But When subjects are new I suppose it is possible.

  2. This doesn’t sound like a typical mystery, does it. I read Brat Farrar a long time ago, and while I’ve forgotten much of it, I don’t recall that being a straightforward mystery either (the story was about doppelgangers). More recently I read The Franchise Affair, which is much more a detective story and really, really well done. I like Tey’s style and will have to look for this one. Sometimes it doesn’t matter to me if the mystery aspect isn’t the most important part of a novel, and in this case it sounds like the rest of the story is equally as interesting!

  3. I haven’t read this particular Tey, although having lectured trainee teachers for twenty years, I really should have done. It doesn’t sound typical Tey to me, but it is some time since I read any of her work. I love ‘ The Daughter of Truth’ but that is probably because she sets out in that book to prove that Richard III was innocent and as a life long Yorkist I’m with her all the way.

  4. Just stopping by to wish you a Happy New Year before 2010 slips away. Will be back to read all these wonderful posts. You’ve piqued my interest about the FB page of The Great Gatsby. Anyway, will come back to reread. All the best for another year of great reads and wonderful reviews, Dorothy!

  5. I read this years ago but I remember loving it. I particularly recall the joke about the college vacuum cleaner being called The Abhorrence, because ‘nature abhors a vacuum’. But that’s probably just me who finds that hilarious. I’ve also read the same books as Danielle by Tey, and once again, so long ago that they are dim memories, but I’ve always enjoyed her.

  6. I like Tey, and this is not typical but I remember thoroughly enjoying it the first time I read it, less so the second time round. Brat Farrar isn’t a regular mystery either, but well worth a read and I thought did stand up to time and a repeat read; and I like her Det. Allan Grant novels too.

  7. It sounds like an interesting book. I read Brat Farrar as a kid in school, and other books by Tey when I rediscovered her, but nothing for quite a while now. I’ll put her on the list!

  8. I really enjoyed this book, though I agree the mystery part is pretty tenuous, more an excuse to explore the idea of crime and punishment and justice, I think, than a dyed-in-the-wool whodunit.

    The only other Tey I’ve read is Daughter of Time, which again is quite a departure from your usual murder mystery but definitely intriguing.

    I hope to read more of her novels this year.

  9. Finishing the year with J Tey leaves you in fine company! As others have pointed out it doesn’t seem typical Tey but I want to read it too! I loved Brat Farrar, the Franchise affair and The daughter of time.

  10. Stefanie — I know, isn’t that amazing! And to think that she was a complete amateur and could then become an expert just by reading lots of books and coming up with an idea on her own!

    Danielle — I also don’t care much if the mystery part isn’t really the focus. I’m usually looking for some interesting characters and situations, which is what I find here. I’ll have to keep The Franchise Affair in mind for when I want to read her next.

    Annie — she wrote a book on Richard III? How interesting. I will certainly have to read more of her books. I think you will like Miss Pym if you like reading academic novels — the world she creates is so interesting.

    Arti — Happy New Year to you! Thanks so much for stopping by and for reading my posts; I really appreciate it!

    Litlove — yes, the abhorrence! That’s a great joke :) I enjoyed her sense of humor and her sensibility. I’m glad you enjoyed this one also. I picked it off a “staff recommendations” shelf, and I’m glad I did!

    Becky — thanks for the recommendations. I’m not sure what I would think of this one if I reread it, although the truth is that’s not likely. I’ll have to look out for Brat Farrar (what a title!).

    Lilian — I’d be curious to hear what you think if you do end up reading more of her!

    JaneGS — I like mystery novels that depart from the norm, so I’ll have to read more of her. And you are right about the themes of punishment and justice — Tey dealt with those ideas very well, I thought.

    Smithereens — I thought it was a good way to end the year too! I’m going to keep my eye out for the books you mention.

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