“Miss Pym Disposes” by Josephine Tey – highly recommended

“Miss Pym Disposes” was a Leap Day Buddy Read on BookLikes. I spent a couple of days cheerfully reading this book, updating as I went and reading updates from others. I’ve included the updates here as well as my overall impression of the book.

Overall Impression

I really enjoyed this novel.

Although it’s seventy-four years old, it felt fresh and innovative and relevant. It never took the traditional path for a mystery novel and yet it managed to be tense and intriguing. It was filled with humour and with the honest human reactions rather than crime detection tropes.

I strongly recommend it.

I‘ve read 14%. -well this is surprising

 I woke to one of those gloomy, rain-sodden, spirit-sapping mornings that England seems to be specialising in at the moment and decided that breakfast could wait until after I’d made a start on “Miss Pym Disposes”, which, happily, turned out to be not at all what I was expecting.

It seems my subconscious had, on the basis of the title alone, classified Miss Pym as an older single-woman spending her time sharpening the cutting edge of her insight on the strop of other people’s weaknesses à la Miss Marple. Instead, I found myself in the company of a woman who is described as “Little Miss Pym” and who, like me, was avoiding getting out of bed.

She’s been woken at 05.30 by a clamorous bell that she’s doing her best to ignore. The bell is part of the regimen of the girl’s school she has stayed overnight at after being the guest external speaker on Friday evening. She regards the bell as excessive and is glad that its summons does not apply to her anymore.

“Once upon a time she too had lived a life regulated by bells, but that was long ago. Nearly twenty years ago. When a bell rang in Miss Pym’s life now it was because she had put a delicately varnished finger-tip on the bell-push.”

What follows is a lightly-written, fast-paced, humour-filled set of encounters between Miss Pym and a variety of students that build Miss Pym’s character, starts to sketch the very large number of students and staff the story is going to involve and establishes the over-amplified, so-constantly-stressed-no-one-notices-anymore atmosphere of an all-girls Physical Training College.

Miss Pym is not at all the kind of person I’d expect to be at the centre of a 1940’s detective story. She not very confident, She describes herself as having been “the little fourth-form rabbit” at school. She is engaged in “a constant and bitter war” with her weaker self, who seems to want to do as little as possible and her other self who doesn’t want to make a bad impression. She’s also still adjusting to having been propelled into prominence by having her pop psychology book become a best seller. The book was written as a rebuttal to the thirty-something psychology books Miss Pym read when she took an interest in the subject. It’s not an academic critique but rather an account of her amazement at the inability of psychologists to read people. 

So far, much of the humour of the book comes from Miss Pym’s obsessive people watching and her compulsive attempts to use physical appearance to devine character. 

So, this is off to a much more cheerful start than my morning is. I’m going to leave Miss Pym socialising with students on the lawn while I get myself some breakfast.

I’ve read 23%. – wonderful prose, the first hint of spook and a book recommendation

t seems to me that the skill of writing a light book often gets ignored. Serious books wear their purple prose like hard-won bruises and hammer home their demand to be taken seriously. Light books carry you along swiftly with smiles and wit, distracting you from the prose that gives the book its strength and hiding its serious intent from anyone who doesn’t have the inclination to look for it.

This book is very skillfully written to deliver introspection without ever appearing to step too deeply into psychology. Take this passage, where Miss Pym reflects on why she is inclined to stay for a while at this college she had previously been determined to leave after only one night:

“There was no good in trying to diddle herself about why she wanted to stay a little longer; why she was seriously prepared to forgo the delights of civilisation that had seemed so desirable—so imperatively desirable—only yesterday morning. It was nice to be liked.

In the last few years she had been ignored, envied, admired, kowtowed to, and cultivated; but warm, personal liking was something she had not had since the Lower Fourth said good-bye to her, with a home-made pen-wiper and a speech by Gladys Someone-or-other, shortly after her legacy. To stay in this atmosphere of youth, of liking, of warmth, she was willing to overlook for a space the bells, the beans, and the bathrooms.”

I love the easy intimacy of this: with the complex sentence structure to suggest careful reflection and the soft alliteration to sustain the feeling of humorous insight. Yet the serious points are all there and lose none of their weight in the telling.

Then, as we get to the end of Chapter Five when Miss Pym is going to bed having just agreed to stay for a few days, we get the first indication of spookiness in the whispered reactions of the girls in the rooms facing the same courtyard as Miss Pym’s:

“A great stillness had settled on Leys. The chatter, the bells, the laughter, the wild protests, the drumming of feet, the rush of bath water, the coming and going, had crystallised into this great silent bulk, a deeper darkness in the quiet dark.

‘Miss Pym.’

The whisper came from one of the windows opposite. Could they see her, then? No, of course not. Someone had heard the small noise of her curtains being drawn back.

‘Miss Pym, we are so glad you are staying.’

So much for the college grape-vine! Not fifteen minutes since Nash said good-night, but already the news was in the opposite wing. Before she could answer, a chorus of whispers came from the unseen windows round the little quadrangle. Yes, Miss Pym. We are glad. Glad. Miss Pym. Yes. Yes. Glad, Miss Pym.

‘Good-night, everyone,’ Lucy said.

Good-night, they said. Good-night. So glad. Good-night.”

That set off my spook alarm. There’s no obvious threat yet suddenly the school feels like a prison or a zoo. In which case, what does that make Miss Pym?

My reading also offered me a book recommendation. Miss Pym borrows a book called “The Young Visiters” that was apparently well-known in 1946 as a book that would make everyone smile.

The publisher’s summary says:

A short “society novel” written by Miss Daisy Ashford at the age of nine. The notebook containing the novel was rediscovered by her in adult life and sent by a friend to Frank Swinnerton, the English novelist, critic, editor and essayist. Published in 1919 by Chatto and Windus, with its original misspellings and an arch introduction by “Peter Pan” author J. M. Barrie, it was an immediate bestseller. Its child’s view of high society (dukes and earls having ‘levies’ and residing in the ‘Crystall Pallace’) and its heavily romantic plot make it an engaging and enduring popular work.

So I added it to my TBR pile.


I’ve read 33%. – two quotes – one made me smile, the other made me think of Barbara Pym

I was surprised to find that Lucy Pym and I have something in common – even if it is only our reaction to fresh cakes in good tearooms.

“Miss Nevill came in with the coffee and a large plate of spiced cakes shining with newness and crisp at the edges. Lucy decided to forget her weight just this once and enjoy herself. This was a decision she made with deplorable frequency.”

Yet it turns out we are not in the tearooms to share Lucy Pym’s delight in coffee and cakes, but to meet the parents of one of the more serious students at the school. Lucy Pym’s thoughts on seeing this respectable but slightly down-at-heel couple reminded me of the way Barbara Pym sees people. It also shows some of the seriousness underlying the wit in the book:

“They were Mary Innes’s parents. And in some odd way they explained Mary Innes. Her gravity; her air of belonging to a century other than this one; her not finding life very amusing. To have standards to live up to, but to have little money to live up to them with, was not a happy combination for a girl burdened with the need to make a success of her training.”

I’ve read 56%.- suddenly this isn’t light-hearted any more

Now that I’m far enough along to have opinions about the students and the school and the pressures the school brings to bear on the students, events occur that make me revisit and reconsider what I thought I knew.

I’m fascinated to see how Tey, having cultivated and shaped my preferences and prejudices against the students then uses them against me by asking for judgement with incomplete data and dire consequences. Suddenly, nothing is so light-hearted any more and no one has even died yet.

it’s wonderfully done.

I’ve read 73%. – amazing how much tension can be produced by controlling the pace of the narrative

Many of the modern crime stories that I read rush to make The Bad Thing happen. Some even write a Prologue to share The Bad Thing out of sequence and then tell the rest of the story leading up to it. It often feels as if the writer (or, perhaps, the publisher) is concerned that the reader will abandon the book unless the scent of blood is in the water from the beginning.

The price paid for this is a lack of context. We don’t know the people and have no reason, beyond general humanity, to care what happens to them. We don’t know the social setting or it’s history so we have no scale to measure the impact of The Bad Thing against. The best books remedy these deficiencies in the chapters after the Prologue but The Bad Thing displayed at the beginning cannot be unknown, nor can it be seen, once more is learned, with the same impact as if it were being seen for the first time.

“Miss Pym Disposes” takes the opposite route. I’m three-quarters of the way through and The Bad Thing is yet to happen. It will happen soon and the tension of knowing that but not being sure what The Bad Thing is, is quite delicious,

It also makes me aware that, in once sense, The Bad Thing, has already been done. The vase has already been dropped. It just hasn’t shattered yet. Or perhaps it’s better to think that the well has already been poisoned but no one has yet drunk from it.

I admire Josephine Tey’s control of the pace of the narrative. She allows that tension to grow not by force-feeding foreboding but by letting the enormity of the dropping of the vase or the poisoning of the well to sink in before the consequences are known. She allows normal life to continue, which is a way of showing us that it’s no longer normal after all. That something has already been lost that can’t be regained.

I also admire the way Miss Pym is growing up as the story progresses. She’s become enough a part of the school to share its intensity. She’s more connected to everyday life than she has been for some time and that connection is making her question how well she really understands people. At one point, as she re-evaluates her assessment of teachers, she thinks:

“She had been all wrong about Miss Lux. As a psychologist she began to suspect she was a very good teacher of French.”

She’s also rediscovering her empathy by linking her experiences to those of the students. I loved this description of what injustice feels like:

“It was Lucy’s private opinion that injustice was harder to bear than almost any other inflicted ill. She could remember yet the surprised hurt, the helpless rage, the despair that used to consume her when she was young and the victim of an injustice. It was the helpless rage that was worst; it consumed one like a slow fire. There was no outlet, because there was nothing one could do about it. A very destructive emotion indeed.”

I’ve read 100%. – what a splendid finish

I wanted to stand up and applaud at the end of this book.

I wasn’t entirely surprised but I was deeply satisfied.

I liked the fact that Miss Pym was weighed down by the decision she felt she had to make. The description of her internal struggle over what to do seemed very real to me. I share her sentiment that following the rules may not be doing the right thing and even if it is, it doesn’t absolve you of the consequences.

I also enjoyed the twist the ending took, leading me down both the paths I’d seen as possible rather than choosing between them. Both paths were valid and the outcomes and reactions seemed to me to be entirely credible.

One of the abiding things I’ll take away from this story is how careful we have to be about the challenges we set the young, especially the young, talented and driven. In a way, the whole tragedy that unfolds here is a product of trying to instil in young people who are searching for identity, community, recognition and affection, the strong to desire to PROVE themselves worthy. 

There’s a description of the Seniors, just before they are about to perform in the Demonstration, an event they’ve been practising for all year and which will validate thm and their achievements in the eyes of the great, the good and of their parents, that demonstrates this. They are nervous because events have forced last-minute changes that their teacher, Miss Fröken, is walking them through, 

“Lucy had a seat at the end of the front row. From there she looked down with affection on the grave young faces waiting, with such tense resolution, Fröken’s word of command. ‘Don’t worry,’ she had heard a Senior say, ‘Fröken will see us through,’ and one could see the faith in their eyes. This was their ordeal, and they came to it shaken, but Fröken would see them through.”

This faith and this focus carry an enormous responsibility with it. Young people can do anything. We need to be careful about what we ask them to do.

3 thoughts on ““Miss Pym Disposes” by Josephine Tey – highly recommended

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