March 18, 2013

BOOKS: novels by Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey was a British novelist of the late 1940s and early 1950s, best remembered for her mystery novels, several of which frequently appear on "best novels ever" lists. I'd never read any of her work, so I grabbed a three-novel omnibus volume from the library to get an introduction.

Miss Pym Disposes (1948) is an oddly structured novel, with virtually no plot to speak of until about 80% of the way through. Miss Pym is a middle-aged writer of best-selling pop psychology novels; an old friend is an administrator at a womens' college, and has invited her to speak to the students. Miss Pym enjoys the change in atmosphere from London, and the company of the young students, and decides to extend her visit for a few days.

There is, eventually, a crime, which Miss Pym solves; that solution is not entirely satisfactory, as it requires us to believe that one of the novel's characters would be self-sacrificing to a degree that I don't think we've been prepared to accept. And the general aimlessness of the novel is occasionally frustrating. But the students are an entertaining bunch of characters, and Miss Pym is a charming protagonist.

The Franchise Affair (1949) is the most conventional mystery novel of these three. A middle-aged woman and her elderly mother are accused of kidnapping a young girl and forcing her to serve as their servant. They claim to be innocent, but the girl's story holds up and all of the evidence seems to support her. The resolution, when it comes, it something of a deus ex machina, but the story is an entertaining one, and Tey's explanation of what's actually happened is clever.

Brat Farrar (1950) was my favorite of the three. In it, Tey pulls off the stunt (which must surely have been even more audacious at the time) of making the criminal her protagonist and gaining our sympathy for him. The family on a British estate is about to celebrate the coming of age (and coming into his inheritance of the estate) of Simon, the eldest son, when a young man arrives claiming to be Patrick, Simon's slightly older twin, who disappeared and was believed to have committed suicide at 13. If Brat, the new arrival, really is Patrick, then he will take over the estate and Simon will inherit nothing. Tey presents the story as a tightrope exercise -- can Brat pull off his deception? -- and we can't help rooting for him to succeed, even as we come to like and admire the family he's attempting to deceive.

Tey's greatest strength is her vivid characters, who are well-rounded and vividly written; they were enough to hold my attention even through the book's occasional bits of mechanical plot-churning (or, in Miss Pym, full-on plotlessness). Her novels are certainly of their time, but there are moments that feel surprisingly modern; the relative honesty, bluntness, and lack of disapproval with which she treats homosexuality in Brat Farrar is quite unexpected.

There are five other mystery novels written by Tey, of which the most important appears to be The Daughter of Time, in which an injured policeman researches the history of Richard II and exonerates him of the accusations that he had his young nephews murdered. These three novels were good enough that I will have to put at least that one, and perhaps more of Tey's writing, on my "to be read" list.

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