Miss Pym Disposes

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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?


The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon

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Minor Adjustment Beauty SalonThe Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon
by Alexander McCall Smith

“Oh, look, a new Mma Ramotswe book!” This series is a quirky favorite of mine and my dad’s, so a new one is always going to be a shared read-aloud. We’ve been puttering our way happily through this latest installment whenever I’ve had a free afternoon for the past couple of weeks. Both of us have concluded with a solid “thumbs-up”.

Recommending this series to friends who haven’t heard of it, we always have some puzzlement when we try to categorize it. Technically, it’s in the Mystery genre. But it’s not really what people expect from a traditional mystery. It’s about a private detective agency, but Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi bear no resemblance to Sam Spade or Kinsey Milhone. Their cases generally don’t involve gangsters or killers, but ordinary people with something troubling or disturbing them. Why is my business suddenly falling off? Can I trust this employee? Where is my wife/husband/child sneaking off to and why? Is this really my long-lost relative or an impostor?

The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency of Botswana approaches a new case by doing nothing for a few days. These two women drink tea, run errands, deal with daily life, and allow the official problem to simmer on a back burner. They discuss it between themselves, or think it over in private, rather than rushing right in with a Plan. Meanwhile, the ideas steep silently like tea. Eventually, they pay visits, ask questions, gather gossip, and then return to the office to drink more tea and ponder the new information. Occasionally, the ladies find themselves involved in wrangling and unpleasantness. Rarely, they even find themselves in some danger. But their aim is to bring peace of mind and correctness to the world, not to stir up trouble.

They are a gentle detective agency and they take a gentle approach to solving their clients’ problems. An ideal solution, as they conceive it, isn’t the arrest and punishment of a criminal, but the righting of a wrong situation. If someone has done something to cause harm, he must be brought to see this, and to make amends. If someone has been wrongly suspected, she must be cleared and given an apology. If a truth hidden has caused festering bitterness, it is better confessed and the air cleared. If a secret revealed would hurt people without helping anyone, it is better off forgotten. This is not police justice, but motherly justice, dispensed with love and a sense of humor.

In resolving the case of the nephew who wasn’t a nephew, Mma Makutsi remarks, “He is going through life not knowing who he really is.” To this, Mma Ramotswe reflects in return, “He thinks he knows, and surely that’s what counts. We need a story about ourselves, but does it really matter whether it’s a true one or it has been made up?” Considering this, Mma Makutsi asks, “You mean as long as we believe it ourselves?” These women would say that Facts, while an important start towards truth, are not sufficient to reveal the entire truth. The whole Truth may also include a dollop of mystery unresolved.

The distance between their work and their own lives is small. Much of each book is occupied with the problems of ordinary life. What should be done about Phuti’s annoying aunt? What about Mr. Matekoni’s shiftless apprentice Charlie? Or Mma Ramotswe’s abusive ex-husband? The same approach that the detectives bring to their clients’ problems is brought to their own. The same help they give to their clients is also given to each other. Reading these books, I see that all of life may be like a troubling mystery. Solving the many puzzles we meet each day may begin with something as simple as sitting down to drink tea with friends, letting the situation simmer awhile, searching for healing compromises rather than demanding  judgments and sentences.

A friend with whom we may simply sit and talk things over is shown to be beyond valuing. There’s a scene in this book in which Mma Ramotswe pays a visit to Mma Makutsi’s house after a heavy rain. The road is a sea of mud, so she must remove her shoes to wade through it,  as they are being sucked into the deep mud. When she reaches the porch with muddy feet, her friend fetches a basin of water and a towel, and settles in to wash her visitor’s feet.

Mma Ramotswe felt the warm embrace of the water and the slippery caress of the soap. The intimacy of the situation impressed itself upon her, that an old friend — and that was how she looked at Mma Makutsi — should do this for you was strangely moving. ‘Washing the feet of another’, she thought. She tried to remember if any other friend had done this for her. She thought not; and she had not done it for another. People were used to doing these things for children — washing them, changing them, tending to their physical needs — but one so easily forgot what it was to do this for another adult, or to have it done for you.”

The sense of appreciation for a gift is never far from the surface in these books. These are characters who are awake to blessings and ready to rejoice in all of them, no matter how small and ordinary. Mma Ramotswe’s little white van, Mma Makutsi’s blue suede shoes, Mma Potakwane’s fruitcake, a cup of tea, a shady tree, the smell of rain — little things that make a day pleasant — are worth celebrating. If even these small things are received with gratitude and awareness, then the truly great blessings — a loving spouse, children, good friends and neighbors, the beauty of the whole world — are ready to receive the attention they deserve.

In the end, what matters most is our community with each other. Humans are all one family at our most basic, but we too often forget to see this. As Mma Ramotswe says,

“At the end of the day, Mma Makutsi, aren’t we all the same? Aren’t we simply people? Aren’t we all distant cousins from long, long ago?”

The Desperate Hours

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Desperate HoursThe Desperate Hours
by Joseph Hayes

And now for something completely different…

With Brian’s belongings stored in boxes at the time his birthday came due, some creativity seemed called for. This was not a time to give him any birthday present that would have to be packed and transported into storage space. Hmmmm…  Well, he does spend an hour a day in the car driving to and from work. So how about an audiobook to listen to while he’s on the road? Yes, that’ll do — but what am I to read for him? His taste in novels is very different from mine. He’d groan at hearing Lief Enger and I’d groan at recording James Patterson.

So I went rummaging through the bookshelves looking for something that might be common ground and enjoyable to both reader and listener, and turned up this old novel about a family held hostage by escaped convicts. Hadn’t read it in twenty years, but remembered it wasn’t bad at all. And probably right up Brian’s alley. Took me a couple of weeks to read it onto seven CDs, packaged it up in an envelope — embellished with a more contemporary illustration that wouldn’t make Brian roll his eyes — and said “Happy Birthday, hon” right on time. What did Brian think of it? I’m still waiting to find out. (He’s got some discs yet to go, and he’s reserving judgment until he hears how it ends.)

What did I think of it? Somewhat to my surprise, as it’s outside my usual style, I enjoyed reading it. Mainly because as I read, I grew to like the main character, Dan Hilliard. I’m not even sure if Hilliard is actually intended to be the main character. If there’s an action hero in the book, it’s probably the young lawman Jesse who is hunting the convicts, or the Hilliard daughter’s ex-Marine boyfriend Chuck. Yet Jesse and Chuck struck me as the usual stock characters. Though active enough in the book’s plot, they felt peripheral to the real heart of the story. No, the heart of the story was the stodgy, middle-aged, desperately decent Hilliard.

What kept me turning the pages was my interest in watching the struggles of this decent man trapped in a situation that pressured him to become less decent. He had to find a way to defeat violent men without becoming violent himself, to outsmart dishonest men without losing his own honesty. He found himself telling lies, plotting assaults, doing and saying things that made him recoil at himself. Keeping his family alive became a game played with evil, and playing with evil is as dangerous as playing with fire. Yet at each step, whenever things seem about to descend to murkier depths, we see Hilliard pause, control himself, and rethink his next move. He knows that he can’t let himself be sucked into playing by their cruel rules, that some things are more fundamental than even survival.

Near the end, Jesse offers Dan a gun, a weapon to turn on the convicts. Dan accepts the gun — but first empties it of its bullets. He has made a deliberate choice not to rely on violence as his means of defense. He will defend his family with only an empty gun and his wits, turning the criminals’ own assumptions against them. Thinking that Dan is like themselves, the convicts take for granted that his gun is loaded, as it would be if it were theirs. It isn’t bullets that save the Hilliards, but their own willingness to trust each other.

Jesse is dumbfounded when Dan rejects the bullets. While he recognizes Hilliard’s decency and respects it, he can’t see his own way clear to accepting Hilliard’s methods of dealing with the situation. To Jesse, the risk seems too high. In the end, gunfire decides the outcome, not from Dan’s gun but from Jesse’s. But when I close the book and set it aside, I find that Dan is the one that sticks with me, that his final choices are more convincing to me than Jesse’s.

Hilliard’s choices worked out to a safe solution for his family simply because in a novel of this genre the “good guys” must have a happy ending. Fair enough. We all like the satisfaction of novels with happy endings, mysteries in which the wrongdoers are caught and peaceful order is restored. All of these plot devices are just the fun and games on the book’s surface. What I remember and take away with me, though, isn’t the surface of plot devices. It’s something hiding at the heart, something the book never dares to dig into too deeply, but glances at sideways through the character of Dan. It’s the eternal dilemma of people trying to walk a straight path in a crooked world, which is a riskier walk than the average mystery novel is ever willing to admit, risky in ways more dangerous than death.

The Hound of the Baskervilles

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Hound of the BaskervillesThe Hound of the Baskervilles
by Arthur Conan Doyle

This makes the umpteenth time I’ve read this book, but I still enjoy myself every time. This time around, I was re-reading a portion of the book as part of a recording project for LibriVox.  Now that the completed audiobook project has been released, I’ve been listening to the entire book again, enjoying the familiar old story as if it’s being read aloud in the kitchen by a gathering of friends.   (The LibriVox audiobook version of Hound of the Baskervilles.)

Classic mysteries are my library’s equivalent of peanut-butter sandwiches, the food loved early in life that still tastes good today, though I know it functions as an occasional snack in what has to be a more complete diet. I started as a girl with Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, then moved into Agatha Christie, then discovered the wide world of Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Ellis Peters, Martha Grimes, and all their clan.

In the classic mystery, something is out-of-kilter in the world, somebody has gone off the rails and disrupted the orderly relations of society by crime, sin, or lie. The detective discovers what has gone wrong, how and why and by whom. By the end of the story, justice and truth are satisfied. The classic mystery helps take away the bitter taste left by the daily news accounts of seemingly incurable evil. It has a calming influence that says, “Wait awhile, things will become clear, right will return.”

Sherlock Holmes stories are the root stock of the whole genre. There were a few earlier forerunners of Holmes, but Holmes is everlastingly durable. Long after I know the plots of all the stories and the answers to all the riddles, the stories still give me pleasure. The best mysteries aren’t simply intricate plots — although unraveling the clues is an expected pleasure when reading a new one.  But more than plot, a good mystery has to have good leading characters.  I don’t have to find the detective friendly or easy to get along with, but I have to believe in his or her intelligence and honesty. I have to trust the detective to be a straight seeker of truth in the crooked world gone askew. Holmes may be an annoying egotist, but he is zealous for the truth. Why does Watson — so often undervalued by Holmes — remain his loyal associate through so many adventures? They are alike in wanting truth, and in doing what they can to discover it, each in their own characteristic style, (Holmes coldly logical and incisive, Watson pragmatic and warmly bulldoggish).

I always liked the short stories better than the novels, because most of the novels digress in the middle for several chapters of wandering back-story, as though Doyle is trying to pad a short story to the length of a novel.  Hound of the Baskervilles is the exception. This is the one Holmes novel that’s as full and tight as the short stories.  The “problem” of filling in the lengthy middle of the book is solved here by turning Watson loose to do some detective work of his own, clearing up a little side mystery that was serving as a red herring, and doing it with diligence and good sense. Of course, after Watson has successfully solved the mystery of Barrymore’s strange manner, the signal lights on the moor, and the mysterious stranger in the huts, Holmes has to be Holmes and dismiss Watson’s contribution as irrelevant busywork.  Watson gives one huff of dismay, then looks expectantly to Holmes to discover where we are to go from here. And we readers, though rolling our eyes and groaning at Holmes’ ego yet again, find ourselves following Watson’s example, trusting Holmes’ judgment.

The atmosphere of the book is so lovely — airy moors, green bogs, prehistoric stone remnants. Away from London streets and city traffic, there’s a nice sense of having room to breathe.  Threaded through the story are hints of unseen forces, legends and ghosts and hell-hounds and curses.  But all along, we know what kind of a story we’re reading.  We know that it’s a classic mystery, not a Gothic fantasy. Yes, there are dangerous forces out there.  But they are real-world forces, greed and jealousy and violence.  If a man is murdered, it’s not because there’s an ancient curse on his blood, but because his death benefits a greedy relative.  In the world of Sherlock Holmes, there is a reason behind wrongdoing which makes sense.

There are always wrongs that simply can’t be righted. In this case, a old man is still dead, a wronged woman still remembers her suffering, a married couple still feel a family shame. But those things that can be put right shall be, to the extent possible. As time goes on, fresh wrongs will assuredly arise, so Holmes and Watson and every good person must stay vigilant. But a good classic mystery like Hound of the Baskervilles promises us that any effort to uncover truth and restore order is not wasted, that such efforts really do help smooth the workings of human society.