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.
In 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.
In 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.