In bed with Josephine Tey
As one of my jobs involves working night shifts, I’ve become accustomed to sleeping in the daytime. Working nights is not ideal long term, but I do still get a bit of a thrill from daytime slumber. It reminds me of those halcyon student days when, having only recently left home, I reveled in the simple thrill of having autonomy over my waking hours – a novelty that I fully exploited until I learned the hard way the link between sleep and functionality.
When I’m working, I no longer read before bed, but on waking. After propping myself up on pillows, in a cloud of crisp white bed linen, ample supplies of tea and toast at my side, I can gently emerge into the hazy afternoon in the company of whichever characters are peopling the literary world I’m currently visiting. This, comes pretty close to my idea of perfect bliss, and well worth the drag of nocturnal drudgery that precedes it.
While some books lend themselves to dark wintry nights in front of the fire (Nordic Noir will always be my ‘go-to’ Winter reading), I’m drawn to something a little more cosy for my afternoon reveries. Agatha Christie has been a recent favourite, and I can feel Angela Thirkell’s dry wit calling out to me as a wonderful choice for my afternoon TBR. Another author whose dry wit perfectly fits the bill is Josephine Tey, and her school-based mystery Miss Pym Disposes (1946) had me gripped from cover to cover.
When her common sense critique of modern psychological practices is not only published as a book but goes on to capture the public imagination, the demure Miss Lucy Pym becomes an overnight sensation, catapulted from obscurity to fame, enlivening her quiet life with a steady stream of functions and speaking engagements. Finding the sudden glare of the limelight surprising, if rather flattering, Miss Pym begins to enjoy it, especially when she is asked to address the pupils at a prestigious girls’ school run by an old school friend, of whom she was once in awe.
On her arrival at Leys Physical Training College, Lucy Pym’s enthusiasm is dampened by the school’s spartan furnishings and the rigidly disciplined regime to which both pupils and teachers are subjected to. However, when her talk is a roaring success and she begins to get to know the staff and some of the students, she mellows, and is persuaded to stay on for a few days to attend the final performance of the year. Despite feeling flattered to be so warmly welcomed, Miss Pym is keenly aware that tensions are running high as pressure mounts on the pupils as they face their final examinations, and gymnastic and dance performances upon which the success of their future careers rest. When the Head mistress passes over a diligent high-flyer in favour of a mediocre candidate for a teaching position at a prestigious girls’ school, both the student body and staff are outraged, but this pales into insignificance when a terrible accident takes place, throwing the school into turmoil.
Only Miss Pym keeps her cool, watching and mulling over the behaviour and motivations of those around her, as, of course, psychology is her gift. The chance discovery of a tiny silver rosette at the scene of the accident puts a suspect firmly in the frame and after confronting her, Miss Pym has to decide whether to condemn her to a damning interrogation by the police or to take things into her own hands. When all is neatly wrapped up, Tey twists the plot fiendishly on the very last page, which left me gasping aloud with surprise.
A mystery set in a girls’ school sounds like it could be predictable fayre, but in the hands of Josephine Tey, it is a sparkling jewel. Her writing is wonderfully dry and sharp, yet her observations flesh out a cast of eccentric characters vividly. She doesn’t just capture the essence of character either, but the spaces in between. What is left unsaid by characters is as keenly observed as what is said.
Lucy, remembering the Monday morning visit to the gymnasium which she had promised herself, wondered if physical work ceased during Final Examinations week. Oh, no, they assured her… ‘All our parents come,’ said one… ‘And all the County big-wigs,’…. ‘It’s murder,’…. ‘I like the Dem.,’ said Rouse. And again that odd silence fell. Not inimical. Merely detached. Their eyes went to her, and came away again, expressionlessly. No one commented on what she had said. Their indifference left her marooned in the moment. ‘I think it’s fun to show people what we can do,’ she added, a hint of defence in her tone. They let that pass too. Never before had Lucy met that negative English silence in its full perfection; in its full cruelty. Her own edges began to curl up in sympathy.
With fine writing, compelling characters and an ingenious plot, I thoroughly enjoyed Miss Pym Disposes. The final twist was such a shocker that I had to go back and re-read sections only to discover that all the clues were there. If you’re a fan of a mystery, this is definitely worth extending your TBR list for. I’m just glad that I still have a small clutch of unread Teys on my shelves, although I fear I shall have to ration them!