Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Book of 1946: Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

published 1946







[Lucy Pym has been visiting a college for young women; it is the day when parents come for an exhibition demonstrating all their physical activities]

The guests moved out to the garden and the basket-chairs round the lawn. Lucy went with them…

The music began, and in front of the high screen of the rhododendron thicket appeared the bright colours of the Juniors’ folk dresses. Folk-dancing had begun. Lucy sat back and thought of Innes, and the way a black cloud of doubt and foreboding was making a mockery of the bright sunlight…

The programme consisted of the national and period dances beloved of all dancing mistresses, and they had been performed with conscientious accuracy that was admirable but not diverting. .. On the whole Lucy thought that it was that neither training nor temperament were sufficient. Their audience too lacked spontaneity; the eagerness with which they had watched the gymnastics was lacking. Perhaps they had had too much tea; or perhaps it was that the cinema had brought to their remotest doors a standard of achievement that made them critical. Anyhow their applause was polite rather than enthusiastic.




observations: This is a crime book of 1946 – my contribution to Rich Westwood’s Past Offences regular monthly meme. (See last month’s entry for more details and explanation.)

It must be 30 years since I first read Miss Pym Disposes, and I can still remember the utter shock the ending gave me. I wrote about that in a very early blog entry on this book – I said then:
Miss 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. Many detective story fans have a real penchant for murder stories set in educational establishments, and this is a classic of the genre. The college is an all-female institution where women train, mostly, to be games mistresses at all-girls schools. It would make a wonderful film or TV programme, and it's surprising that it never seems to have been adapted for any other medium. The ending of the book (the very ending, the very last page) is shocking and discomfiting.

***** THERE WILL BE NO OUT-AND-OUT SPOILERS, BUT STOP READING IF YOU ARE PLANNING TO READ THE BOOK SOON *****



--- and it STILL is a startling ending, on what must be a 7th or 8th read, 30 years later. How I wish there had been the internet when I first read it – now, one would instantly go online to see what other people thought of it. I still haven’t read enough about it, and very much hope that some readers/fans will give their views on it below. Did Miss Pym do the right thing? What on earth will become of Innes and Nash? How could Miss Pym be so casual about it?


(I also had no idea what a Johannisberger, provided by Edward Adrian for Miss Lux, is – and did not find out until Google came along and told me that it is a South African German - see comments below - wine).

So how is it as a picture of 1946? Non-existent. In an entry on Jo Walton’s Farthing I mentioned a Tey-timing-problem regarding the same author’s Brat Farrar, and Miss Pym has the same issue – there is no mention of the war, and it is not clear whether it is set back in the 1930s, or around the time it was published – neither quite makes sense. I did not notice one thing in it that would key it to any date, though the lack of any mention of the war would place it firmly back in the 1930s.

But still a wonderful book, and one I confidently hope to read again.

The picture, from the ever-marvellous Imperial War Museum, shows young women on a course at Sidcot school doing European folk-dancing.
  

24 comments:

  1. 7th or 8th reading - I wish I had time to read everything once! Probably not one for me, though I have got a 1946 read on the go, under the radar so to speak. Funny really, I'm a quarter through and the war hasn't happened or never happened in my book either.

    The mere mention of folk dancing is a crime of some description, is it not?

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    1. I think you may have a point about the folk dancing.... reminds me of wet afternoons at school, country dancing in the gym instead of games.
      One reason for working on the TBR pile is to get the chance to do some re-reading in the future.

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  2. Moira - Somehow I'm not surprised that you'd have chosen this one for 1946. It's interesting though that there's no mention of the war. I know several of the mysteries of the era at least make mention of it, even if the plot has little or nothing to do with it. If nothing else there was a lot of economic hardship after the war. Perhaps Tey wanted to provide a bit of an escape? Hard to say but an interesting observation.

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    1. It is an interesting question Margot - it would have been easy for her to give an indication that it was 1935, say - but she chose not to. I wonder if reviews at the time commented on that?

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  3. Moira, that's a lovely photograph and it says so much about carefree exuberance of life and yet it's hard to imagine that something can go wrong and spoil the fun. I have kept Josephine Tey's fiction in mind.

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    1. I'm glad you like the picture Prashant - I absolutely loved it, for exactly the reasons you say, it shows such happiness and joy. I think you might enjoy Josephine Tey.

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  4. OK, I only read half because, even though I have read it before (probably 2 or 3 times) I don't remember the ending so I can reread it and be surprised. Nice choice for 1946.

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    1. I was really glad to have the excuse to re-read it, Tracy, and it was as good as ever.

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  5. One of my very favourite crime novels, Moira. I too have read it a number of times. Yes, the end is shocking. I think it must be set in the 1930s - the doctor being poor seems to suggest it is pre-National Health. I've wondered about Miss Pym at the end, too. Surely she is exposing others to danger from someone who won't let anything stand in her way? Hard to say anything more without spoilers. Somehow though it has to end that way. Love the irony of the title.

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    1. Good point about the doctor. Yes, hard to discuss without spoilers, but exactly, about the ending. I like the thought that Tey planned this book carefully, knew exactly what she was doing. Very clever.

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  6. I've re-read this one a bunch of times through the years and always enjoyed it; it's quite different from the rest of Tey's work, I think. One small point: A "Johannisberger" is a white wine from the Rhine area of Germany and a fairly expensive one. The overtones of Miss Lux's choice are that she likes sweet wines and is perhaps not a connoisseur; if this is an Auslese, it would possibly be a dessert wine or what some people might derisively call a "ladies' wine", unpleasantly sugary to most tastes.

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    1. Thanks for the info, Noah, I must have mis-read it and been mixing it up with Johannesburg! I have amended above. And I agree, different from her others. She was quite adventurous in some of her books....

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  7. They are wearing Greek dancing shoes and you can still get them on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=greek+dancing+shoes

    I love this book. There is a strange undertow - the pull of the all-female institution, also found in Gaudy Night (Dorothy Sayers on an Oxford college). Could we revive the secular nunnery somehow? Or would it be terribly bad for us... Insert here a lot of ill-digested, solemn 40s psychological theory about subconscious drives. (Links to the hostels in Angel Pavement and Girls of Slender Means.)

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    1. I didn't know of 'Greek dancing shoes' at all - thanks for the info. And yes, do love a book set in an all-women institution. Haven't read Angel Pavement, but will now do so!

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  8. Not read this one yet Moira, but I definitely shall - I was a bit less taken with BRAT FARRAR, which may have slowed me down a tad in my Tey reading ...

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    1. I'm a big fan of Brat Farrar, and would find it hard to choose between these two. This one seems to start slowly, but I think it's worth the patience....

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  9. Another reason for me to be thrown out of the club...I've never read Tey...or don't remember if I did way back in the day. You've made a good case for this one. Though I'm not sure I can agree that any all-girls/womens' school is a wholesome place to be - mine was frightful at any rate and I can imagine all manner of horrific acts going on there. Still makes me shiver.

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    1. There's the novel you should be writing then Bernadette, based on your own experiences! Whether good or bad places, I am always fascinated by the whole deal of all-women institutions.

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  10. Wonderful, wonderful book - and it stands up to re-reading so well, despite knowing what happens. I'm a product of a single-sex university college (Newnham) which I thought was excellent and supportive and a little crazy in the right (as opposed to the murderous) way. I cannot imagine having to go to a college devoted solely to sportish things tho'. Eek!

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    1. Such a different world, and v hard to imagine. A tribute to Tey that she makes everything seem so important. If you think too hard about it you end up saying 'a first job, is it really that important? Is the rich girl really going to spend her whole life as Games Coach at her old school - honestly?' but she totally makes it work. Also, no mention of boyfriends, future marriages, just working for a bit etc. Very refreshing for the time.
      And yes, wonderful wonderful book really sums it up.

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  11. I read* Miss Pym Disposes for Rich's 1946 Challenge too, but didn't have time to write it up. I think you've done an admirable job of tackling it here, and I agree wholeheartedly with your judgements -- including your comment that it starts slowly but the build-up is worth it. Overall, it's a quite mgnificent novel, and that devastating ending is all the more so because, in terms of the characters' psychology, it's in theory perfectly predictable.

    An odd thing: I'm sure that at some stage I've seen a UK TV adaptation. I'm wondering if it could be something that IMDB has missed? Their databank is certainly incomplete, so it's possible . . .

    *It may have been in fact a reread. If I did read it before that'd have been ~50 years ago, so obviously I could remember next to nothing. I did have a sense of deja vu from time to time, though, so it was possibly a revisit . . . or perhaps the effect of that TV adaptation I believe I saw . . .

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    1. I've certainly never heard or come across any mention of an adaptation - as I say somewhere, it's very surprising if it's never been done. It would make a fantastic show - ideal for a big-budget period piece for the BBC for Christmas, with parts for every good female actress for miles around!
      Thanks for the kind words, and I agree, I think the book is a real literary and psychological achievement.

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    2. It may well be (following a bit of research) that what I've vaguely remembered as a TV dramatization was in fact the BBC Radio 4 adaptation described here.

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    3. Oh that's interesting - some familiar names in the cast there, but I have no recollection of hearing it, though I listened to a lot of Radio 4 at the time.
      BTW, blogger is useless, but also (having had problems with spam) I have to approve comments - it should have told you that, but obviously didn't. Thank you for persevering!

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