Josephine Tey: Miss Pym Disposes

Miss_Pym_Disposes‘Unless you are clever enough to “see before and after,” like the Deity, it’s best to stick the rules… Do the obvious right thing, Miss Pym, and let God dispose.’

Miss Lucy Pym is a ex-teacher of French who had become, much to her own surprise, something of a celebrity on the lecture circuit after publishing a popular psychology book. She has agreed to speak at a women’s physical training college as a favour to her old friend Harriet , who runs the place.

Miss Pym falls in love with the life of the college, so different to her London lifestyle, and I think a little bit with the girls (or at least their legs – there is a lot about their legs).

Two by two the students somersaulted upwards on to the high boom, turned to a sitting position sideways, and then slowly stood up on the narrow ledge. Slowly, one leg lifted, the muscles rippling in the light, the arms performed their appointed evolution. The faces were calm, intent. the bodies obedient, sure, and accustomed.

She rapidly becomes an accepted fixture around the place, and a keen and affectionate observer of its inhabitants. The golden girl ‘Beau’ Nash, the passionate and wise South American Desterro, cheerful Dakers, unpopular but dedicated Rouse, Innes who looks like a tragic heroine: all become friends. And so do the staff: the determinedly single Miss Lux, Swedish Miss Fröken (fröken means ‘Miss’ in the sense of a teacher, interestingly), Lucy’s friend Henrietta who has built her college and lives and breathes for its success. There is a large cast of characters, which Tey brings to life so effectively that I’d read most of the book before realising that there hadn’t been a crime yet. Just watching the characters interact is a pleasure, and they are a revelation to Miss Pym too. She soon begins to doubt her calling:

As a psychologist she was a first-rate teacher of French.

And when the crime does occur, Miss Pym finds herself with a unique dilemma. She knows what she should do, but she doesn’t think the consequences of doing the right thing justify doing it. Or do they? Should she let God dispose, or should she decide?

I reckon this is Tey’s best book. I’m really annoyed it’s taken me this long to get around to reading it. There is so much in here: a wonderful cast of characters, an idiosyncratic setting, musings of the value of psychology, a massive moral dilemma…

There are even foreshadowings of Tey’s 1951 The Daughter of Time, with lots on the value of faces as an indication of character, and some opinions on Shakespeare’s Richard III, ‘a criminal libel on a fine man, a blatant piece of political propaganda, and an extremely silly play’.

Anyway, go and read this if you haven’t already.

Josephine Tey
Miss Pym Disposes
First published in the UK, 1946, by Peter Davies Ltd
This edition Arrow Books, 2011
249 pages
ISBN: 9780099576334
Source: Cromer
Final destination: A keeper


See also:

Harriet Devine’s Blog: Lucy comes to doubt aspects of her own knowledge of psychology at the end of the novel. She decides her own real strength lies in ‘character as betrayed by facial characteristics’, and resolves to write a book about it. This aspect of psychology clearly interested Josephine Tey herself, and is at the basis of several of her other novels. In fact The Daughter of Time, published five years later in 1951, in which Detective Inspector Alan Grant, confined to a hospital bed, arrives at a radical re-interpretation of the character of Richard III based on a portrait, could well be the book Lucy was planning to write in 1946. I came to the conclusion that Grant was Lucy’s friend ‘Alan’, to whom she refers in passing from time to time.

Clothes in BooksMiss Pym Disposes is rather a sinister book, because it is set in such wholesome surroundings. Everything is too perfect, the girls are healthy and clean-living. Something is sure to go wrong, and it does.

Reading, Writing, Working, Playing: I really enjoyed how Tey explored various ethical and moral issues here. The school is not a democracy–at best, it is a benevolent dictatorship, and the students and staff must bow to the autocratic whim of the principal even when they know she is being tacitly unfair and unjust.

Novel Readings: By the time I’d finished the novel, though, I had realized that the “crime itself” had actually happened much earlier, but was an act of injustice (at least, arguably so) rather than an overt offense against any rules or laws. That act precipitates the actual crime, and must be understood for the crime to be seen — as Miss Pym struggles to see it — in a way that answers the very difficult question of what to do about it.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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8 Responses to Josephine Tey: Miss Pym Disposes

  1. richmonde says:

    LIke Gaudy Night, it puts forward an alternative way of living for women which might appeal to some: an all-female institution, with structure, rules and beautiful surroundings. Some women loved them: nurses’ hostels, the Wrens…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think this is Tey’s best book. I initially liked Miss Pym as she seemed to highlight the difficulties women face in conforming or going against expectations/ stereotypes/ traditions. Moreover, in some ways it could be seen as a continuation of Sayers’ Gaudy Night in some respects. But as a sleuth she is abominable as she vacillates a lot (giving the book a rather slow plot at times), going round in circles while she decides what to do and [SPOILER ALERT] then her indecision leads to the guilty getting off scot free, an innocent person having their whole career blighted and rather than feel bad about the damage she has caused she just waltzes back to London, planning a new book. [END OF SPOILER]. I guess this annoyed me so much that it kind of ruined the book for me and overall as a detective Miss Pym comes across as wet weekend in comparison to the likes of Miss Marple and Mrs Bradley, who were the other female sleuths I had experienced when I read Miss Pym Disposes. Personally my favourite Tey novels (going off my Goodreads records) are The Singing Sands and A Shilling for Candles. As you can see I don’t have strong opinions about this book!


  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Great review. I loved this book – but having a weakness for school stories when I was younger helped! Nevertheless I think Tey took what could have been a traditional setting and tale in a different direction – she really was such a great writer!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. lesblatt says:

    I agree with you on this one, Rich – I think it’s wonderfully written. It’s very much a classic comedy of manners, until you suddenly realize the undercurrents flowing through the story, and then Tey kicks you in the teeth and surprises you. I think I would agree with critic James Sandoe (who wrote an introduction to my edition of this book: “in a day when one opens the first page of a detective story to be blasted at once by a Tommy gun, the skill of sustaining human interest in itself seems as rich as it is certainly rare.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Bev Hankins says:

    I love this one by Tey–but like kaggsysbookishramblings’s younger self, I have a weakness for academic mysteries. Terrific piece.


  6. Thanks for the shoutout -very much a longtime favourite of mine, and stands up well to repeated re-readings.


  7. Pingback: Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

  8. Pingback: Best Offences: My favourite crime reads of 2016 | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

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