The unexpected success of her pop-psychology book has made former French teacher Lucy Pym London’s latest literary celebrity. When she receives a lecture invitation from her old friend Henrietta – now headmistress of Leys Physical Training College – Miss Pym eagerly accepts. She expects to stay for just a single night – but after the students win her over, she extends her stay – for just a few days… then a few weeks.
At first, life in the college seems idyllic (especially for Lucy Pym, who has no responsibilities to worry about). But as the final exams approach, tensions begin to rise among the students and the staff.
You may have noticed that the summary of this book, one ostensibly on the fringes of the Golden Age of Detection, doesn’t mention crime. There actually is a crime in this book – it occurs over two thirds of the way through. There is certainly no detection. If this fits into the crime genre at all, it’s as an examination of an ordinary, flawed person being faced with a moral dilemma. A Great Detective would skate past these kind of questions easily (too easily to be real, the book implies), but for Lucy Pym it’s heart-wrenching.
Up until the crime, the book moves slowly – too slowly, perhaps. Tey spends a long time establishing the college idyll at the start, watching Miss Pym meet new people, dither about leaving, and insist that all the students are wholesome and wonderful. The slow pace also leaves room for the book’s worst indulgence. There is almost an entire chapter of “establishing” character using national/regional stereotypes, as well as some classism. I don’t know how accurate the introductions are meant to be, but I found reading this an unpleasant experience. There are more instances of casual racism from the other characters as well.
I also found Miss Pym difficult to like – mostly due to the way that everyone reacts to her. As the story went on I began to wonder if her pop-psychology book had a hypnotic effect on the characters. Thanks to her book, Miss Pym appears to be able to make friends with anyone and get away with anything. She is also supremely indolent – this can be grating to read about, but I also began to wonder if it would annoy the students who are pushed to their limit at all times, or the staff who have to work for a living. It never does.
Despite the slowness, this first section is an immersive depiction of life in a training college, which is a very unusual (and probably now-vanished) setting. I don’t think it would have hurt anything to bring the tension in a little earlier, though. Having characters say “It’s murder” as hyperbole is not a substitute for tension.
When the tension finally does begin to rise, my enjoyment of the book also increased. Tey introduces “previews” of the central dilemma, as both Miss Pym and other characters begin to make choices that will clearly lead to dramatic consequences. A reader’s enjoyment of this book will likely ride on whether they enjoy being immersed in the setting, and whether they find the dilemmas interesting. I found myself in the second group, and the book was very successful in presenting those dilemmas.
By the time anything nasty happens, I’d had time to grow attached to the characters. I still didn’t get on with Miss Pym, but other characters, such as some of the students and staff, are compelling ones and I sympathized with them or liked spending time with them. My favourite was Teresa Desterro, a Brazilian woman with ties to England who has decided to spend a term at Leys purely for the sake of learning. Her unusual thought patterns and teasing nature provide a lot of humour, without her being the butt of the joke.
Tey is also great at drawing characters well in a small space. For example, some of the students’ parents make brief appearances and come across as very human and complex individuals even given that short amount of time. However, I do feel certain strands, such as the actor subplot, added nothing to the story.
In summary, don’t read this if you seek a traditional puzzle mystery. The depiction of character and setting is excellent, as is the tension towards the end – but the book spends too much time doing only the first two for my liking. Could part of the setup have been trimmed and still have the final sections be so compelling? It’s hard to say. I spent the first half of the book getting frustrated with the racism, the main character and the slow pace, but to my surprise, by the end of the book my frustrations were swept aside by how involving it was watching the flawed characters make tough decisions. Having that be the focus of the plot seems unusual to me for Golden Age detective fiction. It serves as an interesting contrast to Fear For Miss Betony, which also featured an ex-teacher called to a girl’s school. Despite sharing this setting and a high standard of character writing, the two books are incredibly different. Miss Betony focuses on the teachers, and Miss Pym on the pupils. The gothic atmosphere of one opposes the idyll shown in the other. Miss Betony is uninterested in the school routine, but Miss Pym is fascinated by it. Ultimately the character of Miss Pym was far less sympathetic than that of Miss Betony, and likely intentionally so. The two novels also have different attitudes to the comforting denouement of the Golden Age detective story.