Miss Pym Disposes (1948) – Josephine Tey
Josephine Tey (whose real name was Elizabeth MacKintosh) was a recluse, and little is known about her private life. What she did during World War II is unknown. What we do know is that immediately after the war, she published six amazing mystery novels. Miss Pym Disposes was the first of these.
Is Miss Pym Disposes really a mystery novel? No body appears for over 200 pages. Miss Pym herself is hardly a detective. It is much more a novel of character, with an ending that examines how a crime may affect the lives of some of the people involved.
Lucy Pym starts out as a comic character. A teacher of French, she inherits some money, which allows her to quit her job. She then reads a book on psychology, which she finds ridiculous, and goes on to read thirty-six more that she finds equally silly. At last she writes her own psychology book and becomes a celebrity, the darling of the British publishing world, and a speaker to learned societies. Invited by an old school friend to give a guest lecture at a school of athletic training for young women, Lucy becomes enchanted with the school and especially with its enthusiastic students and ends up staying much longer than she had planned.
Tey herself had attended such a school and she knew the milieu well. She also had the amazing ability to make almost all the characters at the school both realistic and likable: the irrepressible Dakers, the beautiful and popular Nash, the brilliant Innes, and the somewhat cynical Brazilian student Desterro are the standouts. Desterro, known to her classmates as The Nut Tart, serves an important function both to the novel and to Miss Pym; as an outsider who nonetheless lives inside the school, she provides a more objective view of her classmates and the school itself.
The title of the book comes from the quotation, “Man proposes, God disposes.” There is much discussion in the last 50 pages of “playing God,” and indeed, Miss Pym, after much soul-searching, does take actions that are outside the rules of the school and outside the law.
The ending of the book has a devastating surprise for the first-time reader. But even more interesting to me, as a person who has read the book many times, is that there are multiple possible interpretations of what happened. I’d discussed this book before with one book group, and we had all come to the same conclusion about who did what and why. This time, with another book group, one person in the group (who happens to be my husband) came up with an alternate explanation. Try as we might, none of us could find anything in the book that could contradict that interpretation. A wonderful discussion resulted — about psychology, morality, and writing. That this entertaining little book written over 60 years ago could provoke such a discussion is a tribute to the skill of the author.
Here’s a link to Amazon if you want to buy the book: Miss Pym Disposes