Monday, 21 February 2000

Josephine Tey: Miss Pym Disposes (1946)

Edition: Pan
Review number: 441

In her first crime novel, Josephine Tey set out some of the psychological background that makes her best novels still unique. She sows the seed from which Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair grow. Despite having a successful sleuth in Lucy Pym, she never used her again, a restraint which might have been copied with considerable benefit by other writers.

Set in a training college for the elite of the next generation of gym teachers - the quality and range of the training being so superior that it is possible for the pupils to take up medical posts as well - in the tense atmosphere of finals week, the success of Miss Pym Disposes is derived from the prolongation of the suspense to the very last minute.

The stress of the exams and their accompanying demonstration of gymnastic skill is increased by the way that posts for the Seniors completing their courses are assigned to them. The college is prestigious enough that schools and other employers write to them to ask if they have suitable candidates for vacant positions; these are assigned to individuals by the founder and principal of the college. Even as an outsider (writer of a bestselling popular psychology book invited to give a lecture), Lucy Pym senses the disquiet when an incredible job is not given to the obvious star student but instead to a favourite of the principal. This leads to murder - with only some four chapters to go - and Lucy Pym is left with the dilemma of whether or not to reveal some evidence she has discovered that might incriminate someone she admires.

This dilemma is what inspired the title, based on a phrase from The Imitation of Christ about prayer and its effect on divine planning: "Man proposes, but God disposes". Should she interfere, or not? After the build-up, the question has acquired a lot of weight, and the small space Tey allows herself makes the ending rush on the reader almost to soon -wonderfully suspense filled.

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