Miss Pym Disposes, Josephine Tey, Touchstone, $12.00.
"Lucy's mind always worked like that. It wasn't sufficient for it to visualize one horror: it must visualize the opposite one too." - Miss Pym Disposes
This is one of the masterpieces of the mystery genre, and it's on a par with Dorothy L. Sayers' better known classic, Gaudy Night. While Sayers allows her story all the breadth and length it could desire, Tey's economical storytelling style (she was a Scot, after all) allows her to pursue a similar atmosphere in half the pages, but the story is just as memorable - perhaps more so. Each time I read it, I find a fresh enjoyment in Tey's clear, precise, and elegant prose, and in her penetrating glimpses of human nature, disguised in the gentle folds of a mystery story set at a girl's physical training college in England, circa 1946. Some of the situations and phrases may be antique, but her insights into human beings are as fresh and relevant as the day there were written.
Miss Pym, a former french teacher, has written what she calls to herself "The Book", a wildly popular common sensical bestseller about psychology, and this book has taken her to the girl's college of Leys, run by her old school friend, Henrietta. She's there to give a lecture and means to stay only one night, but her stay stretches on as she gets caught up in the warm friendliness of the girls, the collegial relationship with the staff, and the sheer interest in seeing her old friend, Henrietta, in a place and a job she obviously loves. One of the students, an aloof Brazilian beauty called affectionately by all the girls "The Nut Tart", says no one at the college is normal - Miss Pym is surprised by this, thinking that nothing could be farther from the truth. But as she watches the girls under the pressure of their examination week and the discovery by most of them of the jobs they'll hold in the real, outside of college, world (apparently in 1946 jobs were handed out by the headmistress and the girls went out into the world already employed), she notices cracks in the surfaces - one is cheating, she thinks; one takes things far too seriously, and so on. All very tiny things, but Tey is a careful writer, and the tiny details add up in a menacing way when one of the girls is seriously injured. To Miss Pym, something seems not quite right.
Tey ends by presenting her central character with a moral conundrum - all of whose sides she is able to economically convey - and at the very last moment (i.e., the last page) she turns Miss Pym's decision on its head with a final twist. Such is her skill as a mystery writer, however, that while the twist is unexpected, she's laid the groundwork for it, and it leaves the reader thinking, long after the book has been closed. As in many of my favorite mystery stories, this one leaves you wondering if you yourself would have behaved as Miss Pym behaved.
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