“What was justice?”: Josephine Tey, Miss Pym Disposes

misspymBefore the madness of the new term quite overwhelms me, I wanted to put up a few words about Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, which I finished a couple of days ago.

I ended up enjoying Miss Pym Disposes a lot. Not as much as Brat Farrar (so far, still my favourite Tey that’s not The Daughter of Time), and not as much as The Franchise Affair (which touched on deeper, darker problems)– but I still really liked it. I think that my reaction was affected by the very slow unfolding of the novel, so I might end up liking it even more on a reread. The crime itself doesn’t happen until about 180 pages in (and the novel is only 235 pages altogether): well before then, I was starting to get impatient with the book, wondering how Tey was ever going to fit in any kind of investigation if she ever actually got around to what I supposed would be the main business of the book. By the time I’d finished the novel, though, I had realized that the “crime itself” had actually happened much earlier, but was an act of injustice (at least, arguably so) rather than an overt offense against any rules or laws. That act precipitates the actual crime, and must be understood for the crime to be seen — as Miss Pym struggles to see it — in a way that answers the very difficult question of what to do about it. “What was justice” in this case? wonders Miss Pym. “Do the obvious right thing, Miss Pym,” advises another character blithely, “and let God dispose.” But it’s Miss Pym who disposes– and it’s only by thinking through the whole story, and thinking about all the people involved in it, that we can decide if she makes the right decision.

Like the other Tey novels I’ve read, Miss Pym Disposes made me wonder about the lines I draw when selecting readings for my survey class on detective fiction. All four of the novels of hers that I’ve read are really not “detective fiction” in any conventional way. They are hardly even “crime fiction,” though this more nebulous label works better for them. The same thing is true of The Talented Mr. Ripley: it includes a crime, and it’s about guilt and innocence and justice and a lot of the same themes my course turns on — but it doesn’t really have the structure of the classic detective story, organized around a single crime and then its investigation and, usually, its solution. It’s that unity of the novel’s elements around the central crime and investigation that typically distinguishes novels we identify specifically as detective fiction or mysteries from novels with crimes (or detectives) in them. (Thus Bleak House, for instance, is not itself a detective novel despite including a great detective plot.)

Genre definitions are notoriously imperfect, but they are also extremely useful, and at the 2nd-year level, it generally seems good enough to go with that basic “we know it when we see it” definition. From a pedagogical perspective, focusing on detective fiction rather than crime fiction more broadly understood helps (like all rules) to control the fun —  otherwise, the options for book orders proliferate disconcertingly, for instance. I also think some of the coherence of the course depends on sticking pretty close to the formula, which makes it easier to learn the conventions which the great practitioners of the genre both perfect and subvert. It’s not like there’s no variety, as we still go from Poe and Wilkie Collins through Christie and Hammett to Paretsky to Walter Mosley (and sometimes Paul Auster).

Still, Tey (or Highsmith, or du Maurier) would be fun to include. If only I could make it a year-long course! Because after all, book orders are a zero-sum game, more or less. I already assign what strikes many students as a lot of novels in the survey class, and most of them are clearly in the “classics of the genre” category — touchstone texts that trace out the development of the genre over time. The only one I suppose is tangential to that Greatest Hits approach is P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman — which is one of my favorites, but doesn’t really represent a specific subgenre. Maybe I could switch it out for one of these next time around. I suppose if I did, though, it wouldn’t be Miss Pym Disposes, which I think is too understated to be very popular. I bet The Talented Mr. Ripley would be a hit, though.

15 thoughts on ““What was justice?”: Josephine Tey, Miss Pym Disposes

  1. RT January 6, 2014 / 11:10 pm

    I have enjoyed your postings about Josephine Tey’s novels, and I think I agree that Brat Farrar may be the most enjoyable novel, though I did the enjoy the very unusual Daughter of Time. But — from the off-the-wall department, and by way of an imposition — I have a question: If you were to offer a recommendation to a reader like me who is looking for a solid introduction to the 19th century English novel, which handful of novels (6-to-10) would you say are the absolute “must read” selections? I know that I could work my way through all of your postings and arrive at some sort of list on my own, but I am eager to see what you would come up with for a narrow list (much as would you might include in a “semester syllabus” for a non-traditional lifelong learning student ). Perhaps you would email your recommendations?


    • Rohan Maitzen January 6, 2014 / 11:29 pm

      Oh, I love questions like that! They are at once impossible and irresistible to answer. I have the luxury here of teaching (usually in alternating years) two different 19th-c fiction courses, one “Austen to Dickens” and the other “Dickens to Hardy.” I assign five novels in each of them these days — so you can imagine that I go through a similar exercise every time book orders are due. It’s easier to identify the 6-10 authors that are my own “must read” list than to single out a single title for each. You said 19th-C novel, not just Victorian, so here are my top 10 authors for your proposed purpose, with 1 title each and, for some, an alternate in parentheses!

      Austen, Pride & Prejudice (Persuasion)
      Scott, Waverley
      Thackeray, Vanity Fair
      Dickens, Great Expectations (Bleak House, David Copperfield)
      C. Bronte, Jane Eyre (A. Bronte, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall)
      Gaskell, North and South
      George Eliot, Middlemarch (The Mill on the Floss)
      Collins, The Woman in White (The Moonstone)
      Trollope, Barchester Towers (The Way We Live Now, He Knew He Was Right)
      Hardy, Jude the Obscure (Tess of the d’Urbervilles)

      There are other good options, of course (I can imagine some wise reader saying “What, not Wuthering Heights?” just for instance, or “What about Gissing?”) but I’m happy with this as a “solid introduction.”


      • RT January 7, 2014 / 12:01 am

        I am so glad you weren’t put off by my presumptuous question. And I thank you very much for your thoughtful, detailed answer. Now, grateful and enthusiastic, I am off to my Kindle to begin my downloads and my reading. Your wonderful list ought to keep me busy for a few months!


        • Rohan Maitzen January 7, 2014 / 11:10 am

          Enjoy! Also, I was trying to follow a link to your blog and I’m getting a blogspot error message.


          • RT January 7, 2014 / 11:19 am

            Alas, for various complicated reasons, my former blog has been murdered and buried. And unlike burials susceptible to the money-grubbing grave-robbers (resurrectionists) of the Victorian era, I am confident that my former blog will remain undisturbed. Perhaps, if the fancy moves me, like Dr. Frankenstein, I may collect some useful bits and pieces into something new and different in the future. For now, though, silence — except for my occasional drop-by visits to well-written blogs (i.e., yours)!


  2. Peter Jobson January 7, 2014 / 4:03 am

    Don’t you hate that the Uni has decided on the current school teaching year?? I agree, a few extra weeks, & stuff could be added.

    I think having one book that such as Tey’s which are not strict detective formula (not in a negative sense) fiction, would be good. Almost certainly there is one student in every 2-3 years that has the potential to write detective fiction, & understanding that something like Highsmith or Tey bend the rules to produce a satisfying read is a plus to adding to the genre, instead of producing a hackneyed piece.

    I think using Ripley as a sub for the James book would be fair. Ripley is an interesting & fun read, but will challenge the thoughts of the students.

    Also, I like the list you have supplied for the intro to 19th C literature. Most I have read, & the remainder are in my list to “to reads”.


    • Rohan Maitzen January 7, 2014 / 11:12 am

      I’m really inclining towards the same point of view about Ripley. Also, there’s a big leap between the 1930s and the 1970s in my usual list, so Highsmith fits in nicely.

      My 19thC list is very “canonical” but at the same time these really are the authors / books that I think are (a) crucial to the conversation about 19thC fiction and (b) most awesome.


  3. RT January 7, 2014 / 11:34 am

    And I have just discovered and explored a sublime treasure trove: your archives. Now I really will be busy! But I must also find time for my dwindling bread-winner commitments (i.e., my one teaching assignment this semester as a semi-retired drama teacher is Dramatic Literature II). So, later this morning, I am off to class. After class, I begin my guilty-pleasure list with either Austen or Dickens, but I think I take things on chronologically so that I track developments of technique and style across the century.


  4. litlove January 7, 2014 / 12:18 pm

    I read Miss Pym Disposes years and years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I always remember the line about the school vacuum cleaner being called The Abhorrence, because nature abhors a vacuum. Heh! I am much more recently acquainted with The Franchise Affair, though, as it was my favourite audio book of last year and I listened to it twice. This comment really, really should be under your fascinating post about the book, but well, here I am, typing. I agree with you that the shift of sympathy away from Betty is harsh and absolute and raises all sorts of cultural questions. My memory of the book is that it is focalised through the character of Robert, who we are supposed to understand has sleepwalked through his life to this point, enjoying the privileges and protections of his class. Falling in love with Marion is a rude awakening to the experience of prejudice and injustice, and the fierce emotions expressed in the narrative that damn Betty and want to see her suffer are reflections of his own shocked feelings, I thought. For all his would-be sophistication, he has a very unsophisticated and un-nuanced response to Betty and her slander. Marion and her mother have lived with prejudice and injustice; their response is tempered and mild, despite all they have to go through. I felt this was the real reason that Marion won’t marry him in the end. She sees that he is not really ready for a life outside his own enchanted circle, bruised by the realities of reality. However, I say all this on the basis of listening to a book, which I find a much less dependable affair than reading it! I could easily have misheard something crucial! Oh and I think Patricia Highsmith would be fantastic on a literary course, should you decide to include her.


  5. Ida S February 6, 2014 / 1:06 pm

    Rouse did not cheat. She looked like the cat that ate the cream because she was acing her exams through hard work not cheating. The hanker chief was nearby in case she was sweating. Miss P observes that Rouse blushed “was due to her awareness of being suspect” (pg 81) Miss Pym is not a good judge of character: she does not like Rouse because Rouse is not good looking and does not come from the right background and gives the impression of trying too hard. She is easily swayed by a good looks and flattery. After she realizes that “her beloved Beau” (pg 199) was the murderer is she disgusted with Beau? Oh, no she goes along with plans to visit her at Christmas! (pg 208). Miss Pym is some blind to the shining girls (Innes and Beau) that after Rouse dies she blames Henrietta! (she could not help the thought that but for Henrietta’s action none of this would have happened.” The mind boggles! Murder is justified! Jesus wept. Henrietta sees the big picture and takes the long view: while Innes is smarter than Rouse she does not try to improve her weaknesses (getting along with people) While Rouse works hard and is always pushing herself to do much much better. She did not have to get up at 5:30 to practice “the knack” had come back but she did it anyway. Arlinghurst –the best girls school in England –the staff and students believe it should go to someone with Rouse’s looks and brains and not to someone who is unattractive and works her ass off.
    Oh, Miss Pym it never crosses your mind to wonder how Innes’ parents could afford fancy leather shoes. You, Miss Pym who cannot see what is in front of you (Miss Lux’s beauty) unless you see it through another’s eyes (Adrian).
    I could go on. Thank you for mentioning the book in your blog it made me reread it. Big fan of Tey who introduced me to Richard III when I was 15.
    Book referenced penguin edition 1987 edition


    • S December 5, 2014 / 3:26 pm

      We aren’t supposed to assume Rouse cheated? But what about when Miss Pym discovers the tiny address book being used as a crib sheet? And then we learn that Rouse (barely) made first class honours in every subject but the one where she was missing the crib sheet, and in that class she barely passed.

      That is what we learn. That Miss Pym’s so-called expert in psychology is nonsense. She’s wrong about Beau. Only Mary figures it out. And for all her idealizing Innes because she’s beautiful, she loses out. She’s doomed to be a small-town doctor and carry around the guilt for the rest of her life, and at the end of the novel she’s falling apart mentally. Only Beau remains unscathed and she’s a sociopath (and the best character in the book).

      The book is such a wasted opportunity. Tey could have done so much with the conflict between Rouse, Innes. Beau, and Henrietta. About Henrietta choosing Rouse because Rouse doesn’t act like she’s too good for Henrietta’s school, which is her whole life. Because she’s earnest and grateful, and works her ass off, behaviour everyone else seems to find obnoxious. About Innes being the unquestioned brain of the school, as well as the beauty, and why Henrietta feels (evidently) threatened by her. And of course there’s the cheating on the exam, and why no one ever pushed for that to be followed up on. It made no sense for Miss Pym to blame Henrietta – if she brought forth evidence of Rouse cheating the whole thing would have been moot. But all that is dropped in favour of Miss Pym’s internal monologues about bizarre discredited psychological theories.


      • Betsy June 30, 2016 / 1:32 pm

        Hi, I have a plot question. I’ll put it here in the possible hope that someone will see it and answer. Why did Innes have the shoes on the night Rouse died? Was it because she guessed the truth and was trying to protect Nash? If so, how did she even know which shoes Nash had worn or that she had lost the rosette? Or was it coincidence that Nash borrowed the pumps? I loved this book and the resolution, except for this one outstanding question.


  6. Theresa July 4, 2015 / 3:12 pm

    ” Without Tey cracking open the door, I don’t know how easy it would have been for writers such as Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell to have begun their own explorations of the darker side of humanity. I know myself that reading Tey for the first time was like taking a lungful of pure air.

    I realised that crime fiction could be so much more than bloodless entertainment. And her work helped me to understand that I could write books that dealt with serious aspects of human behaviour within the confines of genre fiction. ”

    from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/11229425/Val-McDermid-the-brillliant-unconventional-crime-novels-of-Josephine-Tey.html

    (Sorry; I should have posted this (and the link above) within one reply, not two!)


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