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.