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! 😀