In the winter of 2008 I served on my very first jury. The case was at the Superior Court of Maricopa County in Phoenix and the defendant was a twenty-five -year old man who was accused of auto theft. He had stolen a truck from an apartment complex and when he was pulled over by police he claimed that he had bought the truck from a homeless man. He couldn’t produce any proof of the sale and was completely unconvincing when he gave testimony. When we met in the jury room to deliberate his fate the right decision was obvious, however most of the jury had a very hard time making it. The problem was knowing that he was the sole caretaker of his two-year-old son. It was a simple case, really, and our verdict should have been made quickly, but knowing about the son just bothered so many of us. After much debate we did decide to convict him, but not without heartbreak and sadness. On the shuttle back to our parking garage there was sobbing and second guessing. I know there were several jurors who felt we did the wrong thing – did stealing a car really warrant sentencing a man to prison and forcing him to abandon his son?
In Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, Lucy Pym faces a similar dilemma. She’s a middle-aged recently famous author, highly sought after since publishing a book on popular psychology. An old friend from school, Henrietta, invites her to speak at the physical training college (it’s the 1940’s) where she is headmistress and Miss Pym decides to stay on a while after her engagement is over. She is fascinated by the young, energetic, beautiful girls who work diligently all day at dancing, games, gymnastics and learning anatomy. She also loves the peaceful and calm environment yet puzzles at the quiet competition and subtle dislike among many of the girls. It is a perfect setting to study human psychology.
Students at a physical training college in Brisbane, early fifties.
And this really is what the novel is about. There is a murder, but it doesn’t occur until the book is nearly over. The goal of this book is to examine the mixture of different personalities, events and resentments that lead to murder and lies. Because Miss Pym is observant and interested in motives she is caught in the middle of the tragedy and is painfully compelled to either reveal or conceal the knowledge she has about who the murderer is. And though she wants to do the right thing she debates if ruining the life of a mostly decent young woman is worth the life that was taken. Is it worth sentencing a young woman to death when she can potentially do much good in the world?
Josephine Tey’s characters are so lively and vibrant and her humor is very enjoyable. I can tell that like her wonderful creation Miss Pym, Tey was hugely interested in human nature. I am, too, so this book was a delight for me. If character exploration and a slow burning plot make you crazy than this isn’t the book for you. If you like moral dilemmas and wonderful character development than it most certainly is.
I just checked out The Franchise Affair by Tey and am really looking forward to it. Have you read Tey? Do you have a favorite?
And also…have you ever served on a jury?