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.