Miss Pym Disposes – Josephine Tey

I love Josephine Tey’s books & it’s been ages since I reread one (apart from The Daughter of Time which I reread at least once a year although that has more to do with my Richard III obsession). Her books are all so different. As well as the Inspector Grant novels she also wrote several books, Brat Farrer, The Franchise Affair & Miss Pym Disposes, that aren’t strictly detective novels but all have a mystery or crime at their heart. I bought these lovely US paperback editions a few years ago intending to reread them all but it wasn’t until Saturday afternoon that I sat down to begin reading Miss Pym Disposes & didn’t move until I’d finished it.

Miss Lucy Pym intended to teach French to schoolgirls all her life but a timely legacy & an interest in psychology led her to write a bestseller & become a minor celebrity. She is invited to give a lecture on psychology at the Leys, a physical training college run by her old schoolfriend, Henrietta Hodge, & finds herself drawn into a self-contained world with all the passions & emotions of the outside world.

The senior class is about to take its final exams & give a Demonstration of their gymnastic skills when Lucy Pym arrives. Intending to stay only one night (she’s appalled by the unimaginative food & the horror of a wake-up bell that rings at 5am), Lucy becomes involved in the student’s lives & stays on & on. Pamela “Beau” Nash is Head Girl & devoted to her best friend, clever but aloof Mary Innes. The four Disciples (Mathews, Waymark, Lucas & Littlejohn, who finish each others sentences) Irish O’Donnell, the two Scottish girls, Campbell & Stewart, who keep up a centuries old feud & Rouse, who no one much likes. Rouse always manages to say the obvious thing & enjoys the mistakes of others while toadying to Miss Hodge. Then there’s the Nut Tart, an exotic Brazilian student, Teresa Desterro, who looks on with amused detachment at her fellow students & the staff.

Lucy enjoys watching the students rehearsing their pieces for the gymnastic & dancing demonstrations, is invited to tea & enjoys walking in the grounds & visiting the nearby village. She is even invited to invigilate an exam & foils a student’s planned cheating by destroying her crib notes. Miss Hodge has made the Leys college into a respected institution & she always has several teaching posts at other schools to offer the final year students. This year, there is great excitement as the best girls school in England, Arlinghurst, has asked if there is a Leys student who would be suitable for a post at the school. This is an unheard-of honour for a newly qualified PE teacher & everyone assumes that Mary Innes will be the chosen one. When Miss Hodge offers the post to another student, the scene is set for tragedy.

I remembered the solution of the mystery, even though it must be 20 years since I read it. This time, though, I was able to spot the subtle clues that point to the culprit. Lucy realises that her own actions have helped to create the crisis & has a difficult choice to make once she thinks she knows the truth about the accident that may really have been premeditated murder.

Apart from the mystery, I love the setting & the period of this book. First published in 1947, it nevertheless has a feeling of the 30s. I loved the scene where Lucy & Teresa have tea in the village & meet a couple who turn out to be Mary Innes’s parents. Lucy amuses herself by creating a life for these strangers based on her observations of dress & attitude,

It was not often, moreover, that one saw a middle-aged husband and wife so pleased with each other, Lucy thought, as she watched them come in. They had a holiday air. They came in and looked about them expectantly, questioningly… His suit was very old, she noticed; well-pressed and kept, but with that much-cleaned air that overtakes a garment in its old age. The woman’s suit, a tweed, was frankly shabby, and her stockings were darned – very neatly darned – at the heels.Her hands, too, looked as if they were accustomed to household tasks, and her fine grey hair was washed at home and unwaved. What had she got to look so happy about, this woman who struggled with straitened means? Was it just being on holiday with a husband she loved? Was it that that gave her grey luminous eyes their almost childlike happiness?

This just conjured up so many middleclass Englishwomen I’ve read about in those between the wars novels beloved by Persephone & Virago readers & seen in the movies. Laura in Brief Encounter, Mrs Miniver, the Provincial Lady, Ellen Fenwick (from Lettice Cooper’s Fenny), Catherine in Elizabeth Cambridge’s Hostages to Fortune. Josephine Tey is so good at characterization. I felt I knew the Innes’s even though we only meet them briefly in a couple of scenes.

I also love a good mystery set in a closed society like a school or a convent. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers is my all-time favourite but there are many more. Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie, Death among the Dons by Janet Neel, Quiet as a Nun by Antonia Fraser, the list goes on. I also have another book on the tbr shelf which I’m tempted to read next. On Your Marks by Gladys Mitchell isn’t a murder mystery even though the blurb mentions a couple of minor mysteries that Dame Gladys couldn’t resist (who drained the swimming pool?). It’s a school story, set in a physical training college like the Leys, one of the many career stories for girls written in the mid twentieth century. It was originally published in 1954 & recently reprinted by Greyladies. Both Mitchell & Tey worked in PE colleges so I’d be interested to see how their pictures differ. But, now that I’ve started rereading Tey, I’d like to read another of her books as well. Maybe The Singing Sands or the first Inspector Grant novel, The Man in the Queue? Decisions, decisions.

Anglophilebooks.comThere’s a copy of Miss Pym Disposes, and other books by Josephine Tey, available at Anglophile Books.

25 thoughts on “Miss Pym Disposes – Josephine Tey

  1. Have you discovered the contemporary Josephine Tey mysteries by Nicola Upson (JT is her sleuth?)? One of our blogging friends is related to some of her historic characters…Cornflower or Dovegrey Reader? Anyway, they're very good…I have the newest one waiting for me, and they've made me want to go back and read the originals.


  2. This is such a gem of a book – I love that nothing seems to happen: it breaks the crime novel rules yet succeeds brilliantly. I read Brat Farrar for the first time last year – another wonderful Tey, and, again, totally different from her other books.


  3. That's what I like about Tey. Her books are all quite different, even the Alan Grant series isn't the typical police procedural. I'm looking forward to rereading Brat Farrar at some stage too.


  4. This is absolutely one of my favorite rainy day reads, Lyn. Thanks for reminding me of it, and for mentioning the Neel and Fraser mysteries, which I didn't know about. Somehow I don't think I've read anything else of Tey's except Daughter of Time, which I also love. Clearly I have to bump her back up my “to read” list!


  5. For me it was a hot summer's day read! I know what you mean, though. Even though I wanted to go straight on to another Tey, I've picked up the new Jill Paton Walsh Wimsey book, The Late Scholar. Peter & Harriet return to Oxford, I couldn't resist.


  6. I've recently started a reread (including re-acquisition) of Josephine Tey's books, and am enjoying them all.

    However, I know I own both Brat Farrar and Miss Pym Disposes, and would never part with them, and yet both are missing from my shelves. I have searched everywhere, behind shelves, in cartons, in the quilting room, and so on. And once I started making a list, I realise other never-to-be-got-rid-of books have vanished too, though some have turned up again. (Hmm, sounds like the basis for a mystery).

    Anyway, Miss Pym is my favourite of all her books, and I refuse to buy another copy, because I MUST find my own, a 1960s Pan edition.

    If you like closed society mysteries, I recommend Louise Penny's The Beautiful Mystery. At first I thought, oh dear, a very isolated monastery with only a handful of suspects? But it is simply wonderful.


  7. Several people have recommended Louise Penny & I have a copy of TBM on my desk at the moment. I plan to read it soon (although it's been sitting there a while). I hope your Teys turn up. Favourite copies of books can never really be replaced.


  8. I've read almost all the Josephine Tey books at one time or another, Lyn. I own several copies of DAUGHTER OF TIME, just in case I come to lose one. I love BRAT FARRAR and A SHILLING FOR CANDLES too. Now I know I've read MISS PYM DISPOSES, but somehow I have no memory of it. Your excellent review recalled some of it to mind, but now nothing will do except that I must get my hands on a copy. 🙂

    Have you read Tey's THE SINGING SANDS? A strange sort of book. Didn't know what to make of it, but enjoyed it nonetheless.

    TO LOVE AND BE WISE is another odd book, but very entertaining.

    I have to say that my least favorite of Tey's books is THE FRANCHISE AFFAIR and that puts me in the minority I know.


  9. I have several copies of Daughter of Time too! I think Franchise Affair is my second favourite (after DOT) so we'll have to agree to disagree there! I definitely want to reread the Teys this year now I've started but I've already become distracted by other books…


  10. Sorry, meant to say I've read Singing Sands & enjoyed it very much although, as you say, it's odd. Tey has a bit of a habit of plonking young American men into her books, doesn't she?


  11. This is my favourite Tey novel, I love the enclosed setting, and the sense of a quiet, good woman. A radio play might be rather wonderful.
    I am going to find the Gladys Mitchell you mention – her books are really growing on me.


  12. I didn't go on to the Gladys Mitchell novel but was sidetracked by two others but I want to read it soon. Another GM reprinted by Greyladies may also appeal to you. Convent on Styx, a murder mystery set in a convent (of course!). Dame Beatrice makes an appearance but the nuns are the real stars.


  13. I hadn't noticed the American men thing or, at least, I probably did notice at one time but have now forgotten. This is the part of getting old no one tells you about. I also wanted to add that A SHILLING FOR CANDLES has a character very like Flavia de Luce in the Alan Bradley books but Tey doesn't do much with her except to make you wish she'd written more about her.Just a wonderfully gutsy and intelligent young girl who helps the hero evade the law.


  14. Well, I've become completely sidetracked by other books but I have Man in the Queue on my reading table so I will read it soon. Wasn't Shilling the book Hitchcock made into a movie? It wasn't called Shilling but Young & Innocent (I think).


  15. I recently re-read 'Miss Pym Disposes' as it is one of my favourite Josephine Tey novels, although I love the Inspector Grant series as well because as somebody has pointed out, they are all so different. 'The Singing Sands' was written when Josephine Tey was dying of cancer – it was found among her papers after her death, and was published posthumously. Miss Tey may have intended to revise and edit this manuscript, but if so I am very glad that she did not. The story has a magical quality which I love, and I think describes Tey's love affair with Scotland which was always ambiguous. One side of her nature detested the narrow minded Scottish nationalism and bigoted religion of the place, but the other side loved the beauty of Scotland and the sense of humour and humanity of the Scottish people. A wonderful tribute to her native land, and a truly magical novel – her description of the Western isles is brilliant; for me 'The Singing Sands' only gets better with each re-read.


  16. I agree with you about Tey & Scotland. I love books set in Scotland & all her love of place really comes through in her books when she sets them there.


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