I had never heard of Josephine Tey until I was given The Daughter Of Time, her most famous novel, which must have found a few new readers this year when Richard III’s remains were identified in Leicester. I loved the book, and was given the entire collection of her novels shortly after (high fives and admiration for my husband). Not much is known of Josephine Tey, whose real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh, other than the fact that she was a private person who left work to care for her elderly father, never married, and left her estate to the National Trust when she died in 1952. Her novels do the talking, and although she’s not the best-known female mystery writer, The Daughter of Time was voted the greatest mystery novel of all time by the Crime Writers Association in 1990. Most of her novels feature Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard, who is exactly the kind of likeable, intelligent and introspective detective we know from other great mystery writers. Miss Pym Disposes, however, is a stand-alone novel that has both a sufficiently outlandish setting and an unlikely heroine.
Miss Lucy Pym, small, round, and quiet, has unexpectedly risen to fame by writing a book on psychology. Lured by the prospect of meeting an old school friend, one she always admired and might now, in her new-found popularity, even outdo, Miss Pym agrees to be a guest speaker at a Physical Training College. Although she is drawn back to her quiet, comfortable life in London, Lucy feels flattered by the admiration the students show, and agrees to stay on for a few days to witness the senior girls’ final presentation. Over the course of the next few days, Lucy falls head over heels for the college atmosphere and the girls, who remain in high spirits despite their immense workload. The setting is indeed marvellous: It’s summer, and the English fields, streams and buttercups are as much part of the attraction for Miss Pym as the young women’s beauty and fitness. Seen through the eyes of kind, good-hearted Lucy Pym, the school setting acquires an almost utopian quality of innocence and vitality. Stated as mere descriptive facts, this could have seemed quite laughable and clichéd, but Lucy Pym is a gentle narrator whose admiration for the students seems natural and sweet.
Josephine Tey herself trained at a sports college and taught gymnastics at a girls school, so the setting is a familiar one for her to describe. The way Miss Pym is taken in by such a singular place, almost completely cut off from the world, reminded me of my love for novels about boarding school when I was a child. Those were very popular in Germany, a place where very few children actually go to boarding school, so the mystery was in the strangeness of it all. Miss Pym Disposes is a wonderfully comforting read, a novel that lets you escape to a different world for a while.
But things go wrong. They have to, because Tey is a mystery writer, after all, and Miss Pym a psychologist. After it is suggested to her that in a small world so strictly regulated, feelings are bound to run high and find a destructive outlet, Lucy studies the girls’ behaviour, but apart from a spontaneous dislike of one of them, she can find no fault. It is after the headmistress inexplicably favours the unlikable girl over the school’s top student that things get ugly. There is an accident, and Miss Pym finds herself torn between loyalty and what seems like clear evidence of a crime.
It’s not much of a crime novel, because things only go wrong very near the end, but it’s a psychological novel that keeps you enthralled all the way. It’s cleverly done, and like Tey’s Alan Grant novels, there is no black and white when it comes to crimes and their perpetrators. Published in 1946, there is the odd remark that seems inappropriate, be it the cliches when it comes to describing a South American student, or the focus on the sort of “Englishness” that must have been very much in demand at the time of publication. But apart from that, it’s a wonderful book full of varied, interesting female caracters. It’s those characters that pull you in, and Miss Pym, with all her little faults and self-doubt, is a wonderful heroine. It doesn’t take a tall, brooding man from Scotland Yard to solve a mystery. Sometimes it’s the Miss Marples and Miss Pyms, unassuming but keen observers of the human mind, that save the day.