Boarding School Murder, Then and Now

What an interesting comparison it made, reading Tana French’s 2014 novel of murder in a girls’ private school, The Secret Place, and then not long afterwards, Josephine Tey’s 1946 version of the same thing, Miss Pym Disposes. What has changed in 70 years, you may well ask? And the answer in a weird way is: not much.

the secret placeIn Tana French’s novel, the murder is already a year old when the action of the novel begins. Chris Harper, a charming and confident young stud from the boys’ school up the road, has been found dead in the gardens of exclusive girls’ boarding school, St Kilda’s. The inquiry into his murder has stalled and might have remained that way except for a surprising occurrence. One of the pupils, Holly Mackey, makes her way to the police station and asks to see Stephen Moran, an ambitious detective whose career is festering in cold cases. (French’s books feature an interrelated set of characters and Holly and Stephen met many fictional years ago in Faithful Place). Holly has brought with her a photograph taken from ‘The Secret Place’ a noticeboard in the school where students post images and notices and artwork as a safety valve: ‘If you’ve got a secret, like you hate your parents or you like a guy or whatever, you can put it on a card and stick it up there.’ The photograph is of Chris Harper, and in ransom note letters across it is the legend: ‘I know who killed him.’

So Stephen Moran and the original detective on the case, spiky, bad-tempered Antoinette Conway, return to St Kilda’s together, embarking on a day-long investigation that will cover almost 550 claustrophobic pages, and will be told in alternating chapters, one dealing with the investigation in the present, one following the events that led up to Chris’s death in the past. You’ll be familiar with this sort of structure – it’s very popular of late.

miss pym disposesIn Josephine Tey’s novel, the establishment in question is the Leys Physical Training College, a place with a reputation for excellence in its discipline and teaching. Here high school-aged women come to learn about everything to do with a healthy body; they are rigorously trained in gymnastics and dancing, take advanced anatomy and physiology classes, run their own clinics and give classes in local schools. The eponymous Miss Lucy Pym is a writer who has had an unexpected success with a book on psychology. She is also a old school friend of the headmistress, Henrietta Hodge, who has invited her to be a guest lecturer at the school. Charmed by the health and vitality of the students, Miss Pym decides to put off her return to London and stay until the end of Summer term. She will be an interested witness as the students sit their final exams, receive offers of first-job teaching posts and prepare for the great Demonstration of their skills to their parents. We will be on page 186 of 249 before any murder is committed, which is a very old-fashioned way of organising a narrative now, but used to be more popular when it was enough for the writer to produce a set of intriguing characters and it was enough for the reader to watch a situation move to boiling point.

In both cases, the lure for the crime writer is the difference between the gilded surface of life in exclusive establishments and the darkness lurking beneath. Having marvelled at the beauty and vivaciousness of the young women around her, Miss Pym is told that ‘It is not a normal life they lead. You cannot expect them to be normal.’ In the approach to the end of their school careers, with so much at stake in terms of exams and jobs, one teacher explains that

I should say that five Seniors out of six in their last term are so tired that each morning is a mild nightmare. It is when one is as tired as that that one’s emotional state ceases to be normal. A tiny obstacle becomes an Everest in the path; a careless comment becomes a grievance to be nursed’.

The scene is set for an unexpected injustice to rock the school, when a plum first job is given not to the school’s best student, but to a young woman who may have been cheating in her exams.

At St Kilda’s 70 years away, the gilding is more about money and class. Stephen Moran, ambitious himself, is awed by the gorgeous grounds and buildings in which the students live and work. When he views the Secret Place for the first time, covered with images of self-harm, verbal abuse and covert bullying, he is horrified:

That there was what was giving me the off-cider feel. That gold air transparent enough to drink, those clear faces, that happy flood of chatter; I had liked all that. Loved it. And underneath it all, hidden away tight: this. Not just one messed-up exception, not just a handful. All of them.’

Strangely similar also is the focus on over-close friendships as being both admirable, something that we might all aspire to or hope for, and simultaneously diseased and over-heated, dangerous to the emotional stability of those concerned. In The Secret Place, the action focuses on two groups of four friends; one headed by the rich bitch Joanne, who demands obedience from her acolytes, the other group containing Holly and her friends, who become the strange, shining centre of French’s book. Their friendship is portrayed as so perfect and intense and extraordinary that it seems to release supernatural energy. This was a very odd if intriguing element of French’s otherwise orthodox police procedural. The middle part of the book is fascinated by a magical energy the girls can produce together, which can make the lights go out, or levitate small objects. That same energy is dispersed in hysterical ways in Joanne’s group by girls who claim to see Chris’s ghost, something the police officers will use repeatedly to their advantage in questioning overwrought young females.

Even the dialogue isn’t so very different, if you pay attention just to the cadences, though it must be said that, overall, French’s characters are obsessed with boys, clothes, friends and swearing, whilst Tey’s are obsessed with exams, being good and getting the right jobs to go to. Here’s one of Tey’s more frivolous characters:

Oh, Greengage, darling, you are an unsympathetic beast. I’ve bust my suspender, and I don’t know what to do. And Tommy took my only safety-pin yesterday to pick the winkles with at Tuppence-ha’penny’s party. She simply must let me have it back before – Tommy! Oh, Tommy!’

And now we take a deep breath for Tana French:

I mean, just for example, right? You should have seen them at the Valentine’s dance. They looked totes insane. Like Rebecca had on jeans, and Selena was wearing I don’t even know what it was, it looked like she was in a play!… Everyone was like, hello, what are you like? I mean, there were guys there. The whole of Colm’s was there. They were all staring. And Julia and all of them acted like that didn’t even matter.’ Jaw-dropped face. ‘That was when we realised, um, hello, weirdos?’

So what does separate these two novels? Well, I’d say in terms of the content of the story it was mostly attitude – Tey’s young women are essentially good-hearted, hard-working, admirable creatures, whilst French’s are dissolute and cynical for the most part, self-obsessed and all too busy with power games. In terms of organization of the narrative, the difference is 400 pages of padding in the French novel. Not that it isn’t good and enjoyable padding, used to ratchet up the tension as the girls are questioned over and over about the events of a year ago. Both are psychological thrillers, essentially, fascinated by the energy and recklessness of youth. But Tey’s is written from the viewpoint of the analytical and thoughtful Miss Pym, whilst French’s is a God’s-eye-view, up close and personal with the rival groups of girls or with the mismatched officers as they try to solve the case. Tey packs as much into her 250 pages, but most is the rich silt of Miss Pym’s contemplation. In Tana French we are taken over and over the events of the past as we wait for one – or more – of the girls to crack. I very much enjoyed them both (though in all fairness, the ending of Josephine Tey’s was better) – though what Enid Blyton and the girls of St Clare’s would say about it all, I don’t know.



30 thoughts on “Boarding School Murder, Then and Now

  1. They did have some unsavoury characters at St. Clare’s and Mallory Towers though. I’m sure they could have turned murderous if needs be…
    A great comparison, thank you. I haven’t read the Tana French book yet, but I recently reread Josephine Tey, so it has sparked my curiosity.

    • I’ve now read two Tana French’s and had exactly the same reaction. I enjoyed them, thought them both over-long, and whilst they were good, I’m not in a great hurry to read more. Her style, where every word can be made into a noun, grates on me very slightly, although I see she’s a talented example of that style. As for Malory Towers, well, there’s a continuation novel waiting to be written! 🙂

    • I do know exactly what you mean. It is definitely teetering on the brink of overuse and I’m more than ready for authors to come up with something new.

  2. I enjoyed this review immensely, and am considering adding the Tey to my reading list, though I have to say that girls’ boarding school novels were pretty much ruined for me after Antonia White’s “Frost in May,” which set the bar so high that no other author has ever been able to jump it.

    • Ah yes, Mr Litlove gave me ‘Frost in May’ for a Christmas present last year and I’m sorry to say I haven’t got to it yet. I do very much want to, and am sure I’ll be blown away by it. I think you’d enjoy the Tey, though, on the understanding that it’s much lighter fare. It’s a relaxation novel with some genuine bite to it and I’d love to know what you think (as always!) if you do get to it.

      • “Frost in May” has the virtue of being, among other things, very short…more of a novella. I’m always looking for literate easy reading, so I may add the Tey to my Kindle, the bourne whence, as far as I can tell, no traveller returns. I’ve lost so many damned things on that device, I can’t even tell you. I mean, yes, they’re still there, but also lost.

    • When I began the Tey, I was thinking, well, THIS will be different! And superficially it is. But dig down just a little and the roots are all the same. Made me wonder what the different was in the romance novel, say, between 1940 and now….

  3. I would go for Tey every time – I prefer the subtle and hidden malice… And yes the Blyton characters (in the original uncensored books) were pretty feisty!

    • Tey is wonderful. I’ve found she’s particularly good to listen to on audiobook. Not everyone’s style translates well to the spoken word, but hers certainly does. As for Enid Blyton, I’m ready for that continuation novel now!

  4. What an interesting post, Victoria! I love the way you’ve compared and contrasted these two novels. I’ve seen quite a buzz about Tana French, and the Secret Place in particular, but I rather like the sound of the Tey. On the wishlist it goes.

    • I would love to know what you think of Josephine Tey, Jacqui. She does share some affinities with Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Jenkins though is probably more forthrightly psychological than they are.

  5. Interesting post, Victoria. I’ve long felt that many contemporary novels are overlong, in desperate need of an editor prepared to cut them down to size, and your comparison seems to confirm this. And I like Cleo’s Mallory Towers tagline!

  6. It all sounds (both books) as if it might be a “Comic Strip” episode (along the lines of “Five Go Mad in Dorset” for example). Having never read any Blyton the references are unfortunately lost on me.

    • I think we can probably leave Enid Blyton out of your wish list, DP! I never saw the comic strip tv programmes (though I heard about them). I expect Josephine Tey wouldn’t mind, but Tana French might shudder! 🙂

  7. Interesting comparison, I suspect I’d like Tana French more. The sound of it appeals more to me. But it’s intresting that in reading two similar books so close together, you win something additional and fruitful that you wouldn’t have gotten out of reading them far apart.

    • I love comparisons. I always used them for literary research when I was at the university. You end up far less distracted by the details of each book, and far more intrigued by the elaborations of the theme, and what that means in a cultural or philosophical way. Actually, I like the way you said it better!

  8. It’s been a long time since I read any more Tey, thanks for pointing it to me! I’ve always been a sucker for boarding schools (something typically British in my mind)

    • Oh you’d enjoy the Tey, Smithereens, I feel quite sure! Let me know what you think if you do get to it (I can imagine your post title already!!).

  9. When I read The Likeness it seemed a pale imitator of The Secret History and French admitted to having drawn inspiration from that book. I wonder if I would find myself thinking that the set up had been done before, to more atmospheric effect? I’m thinking of the film Picnic at Hanging Rock, not having read the Tey. And even Agatha Christie set Cat Among the Pigeons in a school.

    • How interesting…. I’m not the biggest fan of Tana French, though I liked both the novels of hers I’ve read. The Secret Place would make an intriguing comparison with Picnic at Hanging Rock (though that’s a really odd book) or the Christie. There is something a bit watered down about her narratives, though that might be due to the padding. She’s one of those authors I’d love to give a word limit to – see what would happen if she only had 80,000 words to play with!

  10. Oh I do love boarding school (or liberal arts college) settings, so I’ll definitely look out for the Tey. I wasn’t overly impressed with the Tana French book I read (the one with the detective who looks so similar to the victim that she takes her place to try to find her murderer), but if anything will make me enjoy her, it’s a boarding school. Hmmm.

    I loved reading your comparisons between the two, and especially appreciate how you managed to not give anything away!

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