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“…College griefs were wild and bitter…” #MissPymDisposes #JosephineTey @BacklistedPod

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Although I have more reviews to come of lovely #ReadIndies books, I wanted to share some thoughts today on an old favourite which I was impelled to revisit when I heard it was to feature on the Backlisted Podcast – “Miss Pym Disposes” by Josephine Tey. I’m sure Backlisted needs no introduction here; I’m a huge fan and their podcasts are always entertaining, pithy, funny and enlightening – and always very dangerous for those of us suggestible types who can’t resist wonderful sounding books. However, I often haven’t read the books they feature; this time, however, I had, as I read all of Tey’s books back in my twenties and her novels are some of my favourites. I’ve revisited “The Daughter of Time” regularly (it’s brilliant!) and also “The Franchise Affair” during this blog’s life; however, despite happy memories of “Miss Pym…” I don’t think I’ve re-read it for some time. So when the Backlisted schedule was announced, I couldn’t resist…

As I said back when I covered “Franchise….” ‘Josephine Tey was a pseudonym used by Elizabeth Mackintosh (25 July 1896–13 February 1952) a Scottish author best known for her mystery novels. She also wrote as Gordon Daviot, under which name she wrote plays with an historical theme.’ Although her novels are categorised as crime, they’re often a little left of centre; “Franchise…” is an intriguing look at an accusation of kidnap; and “Daughter…” a historical investigation. Tey has a regular detective, Alan Grant, who appears in many of her books, but “Miss Pym…” stands alone in that it’s not so much about a crime as the psychology behind crime; and her central character is the author of a book on psychology!

As the book opens, Lucy Pym has been invited to Leys College by her old friend Henrietta Hodge, who is the principal there. The college is a physical education one for girls, and the regime is intense. The students seem under immense pressure from morning to night, studying PE, medical subjects, dance – you name it, they seem to do it, with the results being high class students who go on to prestige positions when they pass their exams. There is much at stake at Leys, therefore, and Miss Pym is intrigued by what she sees. Initially invited to give a talk to the girls on her book, she ends up becoming involved with the College and its denizens; staying on to see how the end of term demonstrations go, she’s witness to odd behavior from certain students, machinations behind the scenes and inexplicable behaviour by her old friend. A dramatic accident causes her to rethink her initial judgements of the students and staff; but how will she deal with events when she is put in the position of having to decide the future of some of the girls?

As a psychologist she began to suspect she was a very good teacher of French.

Tey was a wonderful writer, and that quality really shines through in “Miss Pym…”; I once again found myself completely involved in the world she creates and I couldn’t put the book down, staying up far too late to read it and finishing it in two sittings. I was always drawn to stories set in boarding schools when I was young (brought up on Enid Blyton!) and so that element appeals anyway. However, the psychology is what’s particularly relevant here (as it was, perhaps, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ “Gaudy Night”, another favourite); not only of a grouping of people under one roof, but also the intense pressures they face. Emotions are bubbling under the surface, futures are at risk, and the differing backgrounds and personalities the girls bring to Leys can create all manner of issues. Lucy Pym cannot always read the girls correctly, and neither can we; and that’s the point, maybe. We can jump to judgement too quickly without seeing the underlying causes of behaviour. And Tey leads us through Lucy’s experiences so skilfully that we feel we’re part of the story ourselves, and just as invested in the girls and their futures as she is.

There are so many wonderful characters in the book, including the various staff members with their own issues, especially the anxious Henrietta who is intensely worried about the reputation of her college. The students range from the engaging Beau Nash, to whom everything in life is served on a plate; Innes, a troubled girl who should be lined up for a bright future; the unpopular Rouse who struggles to reach the necessary grades; and the exotic and entertaining Teresa from Brazil, known as the ‘Nut Tart’. Even those pupils with a lesser role are brilliantly painted, and the story is not without male characters, in the form of Teresa’s distant cousin Rick, who is enchanted by her; and the ageing thespian Edward Adrian, an old admirer of Miss Lux, one of the academic staff.

There’s so much about this book to love and so much I could ramble on about here: Tey’s capturing of the atmosphere and essence of Leys; the way she allows Lucy Pym to be subtly drawn into the way of life their until she feels a part of it herself; Lucy’s own psychology and her response to the affection the girls display for her; the contrast between that and her own controlled and austere life back in London. Really, there are so many elements in this novel that I possibly hadn’t appreciated on my first reading!

The book’s been released as a green crime Penguin, though it’s more about psychology than crime.

Of course, running through the book is an inevitable moral conflict; Miss Pym is aware of a wrong which has been done and has it within her power to influence how things will turn out. In the title of the novel, “Disposes” is used in its literary meaning of determining the course of events; and Miss Pym has to decide what is the morally right action to take. It’s not easy, and Tey saves a delicious twist right until the end (which I *did* remember as I approached it, but which still gave me a frisson when I reached the closing of the book).

It was obvious to me during this re-read why I hold Josephine Tey’s books in such high regard, why I’ve held onto them all these years, and why each revisit is such a joy. Her prose is wonderful, her characterisation and her settings brilliantly realised, and her books completely engrossing. There’s much more to her work than simply a mystery and these are books that linger in the mind long after finishing them. I should mention that there are perhaps minor linguistic terms that we wouldn’t use nowadays, an inappropriately jokey reference to rape and an occasional broad brush to characterisation of students from other countries (sometimes from as far away as Scotland and Wales…) As a Scottish person I didn’t find this objectionable, and I always think context is all, so I these didn’t detract from my deep enjoyment of the book.

So re-visiting Leys College and its denizens alongside Miss Pym was a pure joy and a happy way to end February (when I was *supposed* to be reading indies). As I write and schedule this to coincide with the Backlisted main release, I haven’t yet listened to the podcast and I’m really looking forward to finding out whether I agree or disagree with the participants, and what insights they bring (I am sure there will be many). If you haven’t encountered Backlisted before, I highly recommend you start exploring; and if you haven’t read the work of Josephine Tey, this novel might be great place to start – you’re in for a treat on both counts! 😀

What to read for the #1951Club??

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One of the real joys of our reading clubs (where we focus on books from a particular year) is the fact that you get an excuse to rummage among the stacks and find out exactly which books from the year in question you actually own! I’ve been pretty good during previous clubs and have stuck almost completely to books I already owned. Coming to 1951 it seems I have rather a lot of volumes to choose from – and here they are in a lovely big stack! 🙂

This is probably not all the books I have in my collection from the year (there’s an Elizabeth Taylor for a start) but they’re all titles that appeal in one way or another. For a start, there’s plenty of Maigret:

I *could* just read nothing but Maigret all week – and that would be quite a pleasure! But there are other crime titles too:

I’ve read one Durrenmatt title and it was good, if dark; the Christie is that rare thing, one of her titles that I don’t think I’ve read!! And the Tey is one of my favourite crime books ever – but it gave me great grief when I was pulling books off the shelf to photograph! I knew which shelf my Teys *used* to be on, but having had a shuffle I wasn’t sure if they were still there. I looked on the shelf – not there. Searched the rest of the likely places but with no luck. Looked on the original shelf – still no joy. Looked in less likely places but to no avail. Went back to the original shelf and found them tucked up a corner behind some other ones – how do books do that??

If I need a break from crime these two are possibles – I haven’t read Steinbeck or Mitford for ages, so both would be good to pick up.

And then there are the heavier titles:

Of these, I *know* I’ve read the Greene and the Mishima; I *may* have read the Nabokov; and I don’t think I’ve read the Camus. These would probably take a bit more commitment, and I’m not sure if I’m in the right place mentally to revisit the Greene – we shall see!

So, plenty of choice from books I already own, though no doubt there will be temptation from all the interesting suggestions people come up with.  Watch this space to see what I *do* read! 🙂

A Half-Read Book: An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson

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Yes, that’s right – a half-read book – not a thing I often confess to lately as I am tending to

a. choose books I *want* to read
b. usually get through what I’m reading or abandon it fairly early

However, this book bucked the trend a little…

The short version of the story is that OH got me the fourth book in the series for Christmas because it features Portmeirion, which we both love. However, when I told him it was the fourth, he then got me the first three for Valentine’s Day! (How sweet!) But he didn’t realise that I had tried with the first book once before when I borrowed it from the library and I stalled quite early on.

Nevertheless, as I had been given these as a gift, and as I love Josephine Tey’s books, I figured I would have another go and persevere a bit more.

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Basically, Upson’s series of books are written on the basis that the writer “Josephine Tey” is a character investigating murders alongside her policeman friend Archie Penrose. This first tale starts with “Josephine” travelling down from her home in Scotland to sort out some theatrical business concerning her successful play “Richard of Bordeaux”. She befriends a young woman fan on the train, who is then murdered in a fashion that points towards the play and so “Josephine” and Archie are drawn into the investigation.

I won’t say much more about the plot for two reasons:

a. in case you are going to read this book and I spoil it for you
b. I actually didn’t really care very much at all!

The problem is that I *really* wanted to like this book. As I mentioned, Josephine Tey’s books are some of my favourite classic crime novels; “The Daughter of Time” got me really fascinated with Richard III; and my recent re-read of “The Franchise Affair” was a knockout. On top of all this, I actually enjoy reading books where real people become characters – I’ve read most of Gyles Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde mysteries (they’re a hoot!) and also Matthew Pearl’s “The Dante Club” and “The Poe Shadow”. So what went wrong here?

Well. I’ve thought about it a bit and come up with a number of reasons why I didn’t get on with this book (and I really did try – sat down and read one-third of it in one go to see if I hadn’t tried hard enough last time). Firstly, I have to say I found the writing a bit plodding in places – the construction is quite self-conscious, dropping references in so we know where this is happening, who it is happening to and who they are/why they are famous etc. One particular chapter had a sequence of paragraphs told from the point of view of at least 8 characters to introduce them one after the other which really made for difficult reading and put me off. And I found the characters in the main unconvincing and rather cardboard too  – none of them came alive, or leapt off the page, for me; not even “Josephine” herself, and it’s crucial that she should be believable. I didn’t actually care who had murdered the girl, or why, or whether they got away with or not, or whether “Josephine” was in peril. In fact, I found it hard to differentiate the characters as they really didn’t take on much identity of their own. There was really not much sparkle and atmosphere throughout.

Another issue I wasn’t convinced by (and which I’ve noticed other reviewers have highlighted) is her treatment of the gay characters. There is plenty of up-front discussion of homosexuality which really isn’t credible for the time in which the book is set. Don’t forget that in the 1930s it was a criminal offence and even in theatrical circles I would imagine there was much more discretion than is displayed here!

You might notice that I’ve been putting the character “Josephine” in quotes, because I think this is where the book fell down fundamentally for me. Josephine Tey was a pseudonym used by a shy woman for her detective novels, and who wrote her plays under a male pseudonym. Therefore, to have a character with this name is bizarre because if the real writer of “Richard of Bordeaux” had been visiting London for theatrical reasons, they would have been calling her Elizabeth! The muddling of pseudonyms is not the only issue I have. Despite my liking of real people as characters (declared above!) I felt decidedly uncomfortable about this particular blending of real and imaginary. For a start, Tey’s life is still very recent to start using her as a character in fiction, and people in her life and plays (like Gielgud, who made his name in “Richard of Bordeaux”) still seem very recently alive to me – not enough time has elapsed. To use aliases and inventions for many of characters but expect us to believe in a fictionalised Tey is clumsy and to be honest it comes across as a little lazy – why not just create new and interesting characters if you have a story to tell, instead of hanging a thin plot on a real person and expecting us to believe in them. And the aforementioned Wilde and Poe were larger-than-life characters not remotely averse to putting themselves in the public eye; I imagine they would have no problem with featuring in another author’s fiction as long as they took centre stage! However, Tey is a different matter and I found myself thinking she would actually hate this kind of attention.

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I don’t normally write really negative reviews because I know it must take an immense amount of work to write and produce a book – I’m sure I couldn’t do it. But I actually couldn’t be bothered to finish this;  the fact that I didn’t engage with the characters at all, so much so that after reading one-third of the book I had no interest at all in finding out what happened to them, says all that needs to be said. Instead of struggling on any further, I skipped to the end to find out whodunnit and then put it back on the shelf. Whether any of the other volumes will make it off the tbr remains to be seen….

July Re-reads: #1 – The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

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Thanks to Ali and Liz, I have been encouraged into re-reading this month and I will write a little about them here, trying to avoid too many spoilers. Despite yesterday’s spanner, I have decided to follow my mood and start with “The Franchise Affair”, possibly Josephine Tey’s best-known novel. She is described by Wikipedia thus:

Josephine Tey was a pseudonym used by Elizabeth Mackintosh (25 July 1896–13 February 1952) a Scottish author best known for her mystery novels. She also wrote as Gordon Daviot, under which name she wrote plays with an historical theme.

“The Franchise Affair” was published in 1949 and although her semi-regular detective, Inspector Alan Grant, makes fleeting appearances, the book’s main character is a country solicitor called Robert Blair. The story is set in the Midlands country town of Milford which seems unchanged even by the recent war, and indeed at the start of the book Blair is portrayed as a middle aged man, living at home with his aunt, stuck into a comfortable routine of golf, changing old ladies’ wills and tea and biscuits at the same time very day.

However, on the Friday afternoon that the story begins, Robert’s life is shaken out of its usual rut by a desperate phone call from Marion Sharpe, a woman who lives locally in a house called The Franchise with her mother. The Sharpes are recent arrivals and not well integrated, and it transpires they have been accused out of the blue of a fairly shocking crime and need a solicitor. Despite Robert’s initial reluctance, he becomes involved in the case (and the women’s lives) and his whole world is changed.

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I won’t say any more about the plot in detail, because I would encourage everyone to read it. The book is so well written (as much Golden Age crime literature is) and very readable. As a mystery it’s gripping and very clever and will keep readers guessing till the end. However, on a re-read I found there is a lot more to this novel than just the mystery tale. It is worth remembering the just post-war setting of the book – Tey manages to reflect some of the changes that have happened in the world and a lot of the book manages to have digs at the emergence of the gutter press and also at ‘mob’ attitudes and behaviour being influenced by the media whilst being based on very little.

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Tey also has some very strong views on crime and punishment and who is culpable and who should be excused. She makes it very clear that she is against the automatic excusing of a criminal because they had an awful childhood, no friends when they were growing up, no breaks in life etc. It may or may not be a view that appeals, and there is a lot of criticism of what would be labelled “liberal bleeding hearts” but it never detracts from the story, and in fact is a consistent view when observing what the Sharpes are put through. Tey has a lot to say about human nature and its intolerance, although it has to be said that some of her main characters are somewhat intolerant themselves! However, they do develop during the story and actually end up with a wider worldview than they started with.

All in all, I think I got a lot more from this book on a re-read. Because I could vaguely remember the ending, I was not rushing through in a hurry and found I could really enjoy the quality of the writing, the settings and the characterisation. There were a whole host of satisfying supporting characters (cousin Nevil, Aunt Lin, Kevin the Barrister, the guys at the local garage) and I ended up rating this book even more highly than when I first read it.

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