Miss Pym Disposes etcMiss Pym Disposes
by Josephine Tey

I always thought it was a pity that there are only a small handful of mystery novels by the wonderfully quirky and unique Tey. I can’t pigeonhole her into any standard category. What she writes aren’t strictly detective stories, nor really always even mysteries in a strict sense. Three of her best are in this volume — But then, her other “best” are not in this volume — or maybe they’re all the best —

Anyway, I’ve been re-reading Miss Pym Disposes, and remembering all over again how much I enjoy a Tey novel.  If I’d never read any of them, I suppose I’d find the bare description of this one unpromising. Miss Pym, the author of a popular book on psychology, is a guest at a school run by an old friend. The school is a specialized college for sports trainers, physical therapists, orthopedic clinicians, and others studying for careers that deal with the human body without being directly in the traditional fields of the M. D. Amid classes on Anatomy, Physiology, Kinesiology, and Pathology, Miss Pym has been invited to give a few lectures on Psychology. She finds the atmosphere of the school an interesting cross-section of human personality, a field for her to study, and settles in to observe the teachers, students, and other visitors. For about three-quarters of the book, that’s all that’s going on — simply a detailed study of the personalities in this college as they play off each other in the small jostlings of daily life.

Only near the very end does it gradually dawn on Miss Pym that the tragic accidental death of a student may not have been entirely an accident. At that point, the horror of the situation overshadows her. How could it be, that in this sunny, healthy, ordinary school setting, so much envy, jealousy, and ambition may have led one student to a reckless act that cost another girl’s life? But the evidence is so slight, the possibility that death wasn’t the intended result, the possibility that she is entirely mistaken and the whole thing really was an accident after all — these doubts and dilemmas keep Miss Pym in a turmoil as the story nears its end. Finally, when Miss Pym has done the best she could, certain that she knows what happened and that she understands why, confident that she has arranged a solution which may save a tortured soul — then, in the last two pages of the book, in a twist of viewpoint which twists the reader along with Miss Pym, comes the realization that nothing is what it had seemed. Miss Pym understands suddenly that she had misunderstood the whole thing.

She would give up lecturing on psychology. What did she know about psychology anyhow? As a psychologist she was a first-rate teacher of French. She could write a book about character as betrayed by facial characteristics. At least she had been right about that. Mostly.

Yet the interesting thing about this book is that the observations of people and their characteristics, the dissection of what makes them tick, are so intelligently noticed and considered all through. There is a sense in which Miss Pym is a fine psychologist, in her own way. If there is a warning here, it’s certainly not a warning against observing people, or drawing conclusions from what we observe. But in the end, it is a warning not to place absolute confidence in the rightness of our own conclusions to the point that we feel empowered to “play God”, because we are also as human and fallible as those we are observing.  One of the most interesting conversations in the book takes place between Miss Pym and a young man visiting his girl at the school, and that conversation is what always ends up sticking in my memory every time I finish this book.

“I have to do something that is right,” she said slowly, “and I’m afraid of the consequences.”
“Consequences to you?”
“No. To other people.”
“Never mind; do it.”
Miss Pym put plates of cakes on a tray. “You see, the proper thing is not necessarily the right thing. Or do I mean the opposite?”
“I’m not sure that I know what you mean at all.”
“Well — there are those awful dilemmas about whom would you save. You know. If you knew that by saving a person from the top of a snow slide you would start an avalanche that would destroy a village, would you do it? That sort of thing.”
“Of course I would do it.”
“You would?”
“The avalanche might bury a village without killing a cat — shall I put some sandwiches on that tray? — so you would be one life to the good.”
“You would always do the right thing, and let the consequences take care of themselves?”
“That’s about it.”
“It is certainly the simplest. In fact I think it’s too simple.”
“Unless you plan to play God, one has to take the simple way.”

The world is never a simple place — and people are not simple to understand. But once we begin seeing the complexity of it all, we could be overwhelmed and afraid to make any move at all for fear of the unfathomable potential repercussions. What else can we do, confronted with the dizzying confusion of life, but try to walk a straight path as simply as we can see the way, and leave the rest to God?

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