What Is a “Pymish” Mystery Novel?
Presented by Kathy Ackley
Meeting of the Barbara Pym Society in
Welcome back to Carsely, the charming Cotswolds village that's home to the 16th Agatha Raisin mystery. (If you've missed the first 15, just imagine a Barbara Pym novel with murder, mayhem and the sexual longings of a 50-something divorced lady sleuth.)
(Review of The Perfect Paragon)
When I sent this Pym sighting to Ellen for Green Leaves, she responded by asking if I would do a presentation at this meeting on Pym-inspired or “Pymish” mystery writers. As a great admirer of both Barbara Pym and British mystery novels, I was delighted to be asked. I have selected six British mystery writers (with a digression on a seventh) who have been compared directly to Barbara Pym in reviews or informal discussions. My choices are personal and subjective, so I am sure that the mystery readers among you will think of other mystery writers whom you would compare to Pym. I hope that you will mention them in the discussion period after my talk.
Incidentally, as I was
through old copies of the Barbara Pym
Newsletter, I found a note in the December 1986 issue from Janice
which said: “Seen recently at a Crown book store in La Crescenta,
Barbara Pym’s The Sweet Dove Died in
the Murder Mystery section. When the mistake was pointed out, the sales
declined to change the book’s location. ‘That’s where we always put it,
declared’” (“Very Public Eye” 8). Furthermore,
I discovered at the Waterboro Public Library's website a list of June
of writers that includes that of "British comic and mystery novelist
Barbara Pym," and she is also identified as a mystery writer at
Fantastic Fiction website. What an
bit of misinformation to find while thinking about this topic! It is true that Pym practiced sleuthing as an
Not surprisingly, mystery novels that remind readers of Pym almost always have one or more of the following elements: eccentric, amusing, or even quirky characters, such as pairs of elderly spinsters living together, unmarried women of a certain age, vicars who are experts in unusual fields, pedantic archivists, snoopy librarians, or egocentric clerics. Such novels depict amusing situations; have a village, church, or small community setting; and are often narrated with an ironic, bemused, or genteel voice. Clerical mysteries certainly bring Pym to mind, as do those classified as “cozies,” or “gentle mysteries.” For those of you not familiar with the term, cozies generally do not describe violence in any great detail, though there is usually at least one murder. Often they have a closed setting, such as a village or stately home. They have a small number of suspects and typically feature amateur detectives. Whether amateur or professional, though, the detective in a cozy always, I think it’s safe to say, discovers the murderer and restores order to the community. Obviously not all such novels could be described as Pymlike. Not all crime novels set in a church or small English village or that have eccentric characters drinking tea are Pymish, but many such novels strike a familiar chord. Something resonates with Pymians that makes us think, “Ah! That sounds so much like Barbara Pym… .” And that is what I am talking about today: mystery writers whose novels remind us of Pym, that have some of the familiar and dear characteristics of Pym’s novels and that, because of it, give us added pleasure.
I will begin with M. C. Beaton, whose Agatha Raisin novels have been compared to a Barbara Pym novel with murder, mayhem, and sex. A Scottish-born writer living in the Cotswolds, Beaton has two long-standing series, one featuring Hamish MacBeth, a village constable in Scotland, and the other Agatha Raisin, a divorcee retired from her public relations firm in London to live in a small Cotswold village, where she gains a reputation as an amateur sleuth. I enjoy both series, have read every one of them, and would agree—to a point—that there are indeed Pymish accents in the Agatha Raisin series. Agatha is a smart middle-aged woman searching for love or at least a relationship with a man; the men she meets are egocentric and insensitive, albeit good looking; the novels almost always take place in a small village; the plot frequently features a stranger coming into the community and disrupting it; and recurring characters include a chatty and helpful cleaning woman, a kindly vicar’s wife and her curmudgeonly husband, and a variety of widowed or divorced women with their eyes on the men that Agatha fancies.
But one can
go only so far in comparing the Agatha Raisin novels to those by Pym. Whereas Pym’s central characters are
typically gentle and sensitive to the needs of others, Agatha Raisin is
aggressive, abrasive personality whose own needs come first. She is, as Marilyn Stasio describes her in
the New York Times, “an amateur
sleuth who is crude and rude, but nobody's fool. . . . A stocky
woman with a round, rather pugnacious face and small, bearlike eyes,"
is self-important, pushy, nosy, and manipulative (Review of Potted
Gardener). Or, as Helene Androski of the
Raisin and the Quiche of Death introduces Agatha Raisin, who has
Fun, too, are the
novels of Joan
Coggin, another British mystery writer with some similarities to Pym. Born in 1898, Coggin was older than Pym but
died the same year that Pym did, in 1980.
She worked as a nurse until 1930 when she started writing, wrote
girls’ books under the pseudonym “Joanna Lloyd,” and published four
in the mid-1940s featuring the scatter-brained amateur sleuth Lady
Lorrimer Hastings. Lady Lupin is the
lovely, and kindhearted wife to the much-older, but very handsome,
vicar of St.
Marks Parish in
When it comes
to matters clerical,
[Lady Lupin] literally doesn’t know Jews from Jesuits and she’s
sea at the meetings of the Mothers’
There are definitely Pymish accents or overtones in Coggin’s novels, and I found myself marking a number of passages that brought Pym to mind. For instance, in Who Killed the Curate?, Miss Simkins, like a number of other characters, is a possible suspect for the murder of the curate. She has done something that she confesses to Lady Lupin, ending with “I shall kill myself.” Lady Lupin says, soothingly:
shouldn’t, if I were you. It’s
so cold; besides, it would all come out at the inquest, why you did it
. . .
most unpleasant. I should have a
cup of tea” (how clever of me to think of that.
I believe I am really cut out to be a vicar’s wife after all; I
just what to do on every occasion!)” (53).
Compare that with the familiar passage at the beginning of Excellent Women when we learn that Mildred is “capable of dealing with most of the stock situations or even the great moments of life. . . .” (6). But, whereas Pym explores the emotional depths of intelligent women with quiet humor, Coggin treats Lady Lupin as an air-brained caricature. Whereas Pym’s central characters are observant, everything seems to go over Lady Lupin’s head. Much of it is broad or exaggerated comedy, not subtle in the way that so much of Pym is. Here is another typical passage:
Lady Lupin: “Oh, my dears, it was too frightful. . . . a horrible creepy afternoon. … It was all like something out of Pope. Do I mean Pope, Andrew?”
Andrew: “No, I think you mean Edgar Allan Poe, darling.”
Lady Lupin: “Yes, of course, or Edgar Wallace. You know what I mean, absolutely too eerie for words, all wind and rain, and the sea looking too unfriendly, and then this woman just like a witch. I know, Macbeth, that was what I was really thinking of. I can just see her stirring her cauldron.” (81)
And then, quite pleased with herself for remembering the passage so well, she proceeds to badly misquote it, starting with “ Fillet of something snake,/In the cauldron boil and bake,” and ending with “For a charm of something trouble,/Like a hell-soup boil and bubble” ( 81). Not, I think, the way a Pym woman would quote a literary passage. So while I find Coggin’s Lady Lupin delightful in her own way, she seems to me to lack the depth of character of Pym’s protagonists. Fortunately, after the first novel, motherhood and experience with the parish settle Lady Lupin down quite a bit and she becomes less ridiculous and more endearing and lovable, still funny and entertaining. As the editors of Rue Morgue Press comment in a very Pymian way, “She’s that rarity in cozy crime fiction—in spite of her many eccentricities she seems more real than most of the people we encounter in real life” (Coggin, “Orchard House” 6).
writer whose novels are more like Barbara Pym’s is D. M. Greenwood. With degrees from
she brings the
world she knows to vivid
and unsentimental life, avoiding stereotypes and creating a vigorous
characters who are too flawed to be saintly, but too human to be
blamed. She writes entertainingly and intelligently about a church
pressure and her insights are valuable. Sharp, strong and to be
savoured like a
We see this sharpness in Unholy Ghosts, for instance, where we find Theodora helping to solve the murder of Father Hereward Marr, an aggressive, unreliable and frequently intoxicated parish priest whose body is discovered in a pit and whose wife has disappeared. When Theodora is told of the death, she has trouble imagining it:
“You mean he fell into a pit which he had himself dug which was connected with the building's central heating system?” She tried to keep the incredulity out of her tone. The Archdeacon nodded unhappily. It was untidy. It was undignified. It was un-Anglican. It would undoubtedly lead to a lot of administrative activity. It was all he most hated. (38)
Another example of her sharply critical tone occurs in Idol Bones with this description of the bishop:
ability not merely to look helpless
but actually to be so, had stood him in good stead all his professional
The good willed, especially amongst the laity, flocked to help him. He
pride, no shame. He knew (and the more sophisticated of his rescuers
he did them a kindness in allowing them scope for their charity. (35-36)
For something of
Barbara Pym’s humor
and delicious wit, I recommend the delightful mysteries of Catherine
in the imaginary
Religious Body, first in the Calleshire Chronicles (which now
than 20), sees Inspector Sloan solving the murder of a nun in a
convent. Sister Anne has been thrown down
steps and Inspector Sloan finds himself confronted with (and dismayed
possible suspects, all nuns trained to keep their eyes averted at all
of them wearing identical black habits, and all of them having assumed
Who?, her second, finds Sloan investigating a hit-and-run murder in
Reviews of Aird’s
always comment on her comic touch. For instance, The New Yorker,
following initial publication of The Religious Body, wrote: "In the field of
murders and mysteries, Catherine Aird is a shining new star. She writes
extremely well about the kind of 'ordinary' talkative, interesting
sensible reader can resist. Miss Aird is a most ingenious lady" (qtd.
AudioPartners). The [
seems to me that perhaps the most distinctive feature of mysteries that
the comparison to Pym most appropriate is voice, or the tone of the narrator, from whose perspective the
told. Pym’s voice might most accurately be
described as genteel, in all that the word means or implies: civilized,
cultured, polite, refined, well-bred As Dale Salwak said at the Harvard
conference in 2005, it is “a voice that is speaking directly to
private, in its own distinctive, soothing, and enthralling way.
and wise, the voice behind the characters in [Pym’s] novels beguiles us
and will not let go. … [Hers is a] gentle and genteel sensibility.”
Kate Charles and Lucy Walker’s commentary on the genteel voice in The Oxford Companion to Mystery and Crime Writing uses the example of Barbara Pym:
The concept of the genteel voice . . . is an elusive one, recognizable when encountered but difficult to define. . . . [Barbara Pym’s] trenchant comedies of manners were set in a world of prim, well-bred spinsters and proper clergymen. In [her novels] there exists a subversive element, an irony, an underlying recognition that gentility is only skin deep. (485)
novels are quintessentially English, what one reviewer describes
as “the kind you can read in front of a fire on a cold rainy
day. It's a
lovely little slice of English Christmas Fayres and Red Cross auctions
teas and constitutionals” (Dillon). Charles
and Walker cite Holt’s second novel, The
Cruellest Month, as an example of the genteel voice in
mysteries. It is “replete with the trappings of academic gentility:
Bernard Knight, reviewing Holt’s 2005 novel No Cure for Death, calls her the “unchallenged ‘Queen of the Cosies’” and observes:
She has a remarkable gift for writing all the things that the reader agrees with, from the awful system of appointments in general practice to the control freakery that now permeates every level of British society. This political incorrectness is leavened by cookery recipes, the behaviour of her cat and dog as well as all the things that we of advancing years feel is wrong with the world! Yet all this is offered with a wit and cheerfulness that makes reading a Hazel Holt 'whodunnit' a real pleasure, assuring us that we are not quite alone in our belief that modern society is going down the tubes. (Tangled Web)
Knight’s comments make it clear why Hazel Holt is regarded as a true cozy writer—she is comforting and comfortable, familiar, and homey, a feature that may mark one difference between Holt and Pym. As Radmila May suggests of Holt’s novels, “the Pym irony is lacking and Malory has a certain 'mumsy' quality that one would not find in a Pym novel.” [mumsy (adjective) Usage: Brit. cosy and comfortable, homelike. ] Sheila Malory may have this “mumsy” quality, but Holt’s novels resonate with the Pym voice. Reading a Hazel Holt novel, one cannot help but feel the distinct influence of Barbara Pym.
Kate Charles’s novels,
resonate with that voice. Indeed, one
person who posted to the Barbara Pym List in 2000 when members were
which mystery writers have a Pymish slant went so far as to say that
probably the Pymmiest author I've ever read outside of Barbara herself”
(Rosen). Kate Charles is the pen name of
Carol Chase, an American native and British citizen living in
When I wrote my first book, I described it as "Barbara Pym meets P.D. James.” I think that still holds pretty true. I want to capture and explore the things I love about the Church of England, but it's by no means an uncritical love, and I'm always on the look-out for issues in the Church which inspire strong feelings -- in me and others. (Spencer-Fleming)
Elsewhere, a reviewer of A Dead Man out of Mind writes for The Christian Science Monitor: "Like P.D. James, Kate Charles knows the advantage of putting a group of people in a closed setting and watching them mingle and murder.... [H]er characters are what might happen if Barbara Pym's ‘excellent women’ got together in the study after the vicar went out" (qtd. in “Charles,”Tangled Web) and a reviewer of Cruel Habitations called that novel “a cross between Barbara Pym and P. D. James” (Friends of the Tempe Public Library 3).
As an aside, I would
say that these
comparisons of Kate Charles to P. D. James are at the very least
certainly relevant to my focus today. James has said that Barbara Pym
is one of
her favorite writers and in fact gave a heartfelt and very moving talk
Pym at the 2003 Pym Society meeting in
absorbing, generous narrative
frame allows James scope for moments of Barbara Pymish cosiness as well
scenes of du Mauppasant-like horror, the two styles being skillfully
interwoven. Here, after discovering a
particularly horrible death, two elderly women comfort each other à la Pym: “They sat at the table
opposite to each other. The scrambled
egg was perfect, creamy and warm and slightly peppery.
There was a sprig of parsley on each
plate.” Pym-like too is James’s palpable
pleasure in describing the “gloriously adorned interior” of All Saints,
Indeed, James’s characterization of her own writing reminds me of Pym herself. At the Random House “official website of P. D. James,” there is a page with “mystery writing lessons.” James notes that "a first class mystery should also be a first class novel," and that to bring the story to life, it must be true to life: "You must go through life with all your senses open to experiences, good and bad," she says. "Empathize with other people, and believe that nothing which happens to a true writer is ever wasted." This sounds very like Barbara Pym’s own philosophy.
Returning to Kate
novels all have to do with some aspect of what she describes as “the
between the ideal of the institution and the all-too-human foibles of
people who constitute that institution” (Spencer-Fleming).
She writes astutely and with confidence of
the Church of England, drawing on her own experiences as both a former
and a devout member of the Church. As the
Charles’s first novel, A Drink of Deadly Wine, is about the “outing” of gay clergy in the Church of England. This novel introduces architect David Middleton-Brown and artist Lucy Kingsley to one another and to readers, and the two amateur sleuths subsequently become very good friends and then lovers in the remaining four novels of the series. The Snares of Death, second in the series, examines the High Church/Low Church controversy. This novel has some fine Pymish touches, including an obnoxious, self-centered, domineering Evangelical Anglican vicar determined to rid his new church of all traces of “idolatry” and Papism. It also has a cast of Pymish eccentrics, including two elderly spinsters living in Monkey Puzzle Cottage, one of whom browbeats and berates the other, very much in the manner of Miss Doggett berating Jesse Morrow in Crampton Hodnet.
Her third novel, Appointed to Die explores infighting
among church clergy, while A Dead Man out
of Mind, deals with the ordination of women priests in the Church
Angels Among Them explores the consequences of the
financial crisis. In all of these
novels, we see what the Sunday New York
Times Book Review calls “real tenderness ... in her detailed
the faithful, from the sensitive student of church architecture who
as sleuth to the dear old church biddies who arrange the flowers and
gossip with as much relish as the witches in Macbeth" (qtd. in “Charles”). Charles has written five more novels
since the Book of Psalms series, the first three of which are
with no recurring characters, but each one with a Church of England
backdrop. Her last two, Evil
Intent and Secret Sins (out this month in the
Kate Charles draws wonderfully vivid characters and scenes, and she is quite skillful at creating a strong sense of place. While the novels are mysteries with murder and intrigue woven into the plot, Charles’s focus is more on character, especially in everyday situations like flower arranging for the church altar, providing the best cream cakes at tea for the local vicar, and pursuing the ongoing daily activities of church folk in a small English town or cathedral close. Often she is humorous and satirical, not in a sharply critical way but gently, in the manner of Barbara Pym. Over and over reviewers of her novels draw the comparison with Pym: A writer for the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine remarks that [A Drink of Deadly Wine] is “thoughtful, mature, and mesmerizing . . . a mystery very reminiscent of Pym.” A Publisher’s Weekly review of Cruel Habitations comments: “Cold rain, gallons of tea, and eccentric characters generate a cozy Barbara Pym-like atmosphere. . . . This is for genteel readers who appreciate a hint of sex” (Publishers Weekly.com). And a reviewer for the Library Journal writes: "With a keen eye for motivation and a thorough knowledge of church politics, the author delivers a clever, thoughtful story ... Fans of Barbara Pym ... should enjoy this series" (qtd. in “Charles”). Charles herself has always spoken of the influence of Barbara Pym on her novels: “[I]t is the characters that are important, and in this my books are very much in the tradition of Barbara Pym. ‘A bloodstained version of the world of Barbara Pym’ is the review quote I most treasure. She has been and remains the most profound literary influence on my work” (Kate Charles website).
Catherine Aird, D. M. Greenwood, Hazel Holt, and Kate Charles are, in my opinion, excellent examples of mystery writers whose works have strong Pymish overtones. Charles and Holt have been directly influenced by Barbara Pym, and they are the two writers to turn to if you want to hear strong echoes of Pym’s voice in British mysteries. But the other writers also have their wonderful Pymish touches, especially Catherine Aird and D. M. Greenwood, nor can you go wrong reading M.C. Beaton and Joan Coggin. There is much that one might describe as a Pymish quality in many of the novels by all of these mystery writers. And though they are not written by Barbara Pym herself, they certainly evoke her voice and remind us of that writer who has brought us all here this weekend.
Aird, Catherine. www.catherineaird.com
-----. The Religious
Androski, Helene. “Cozies: A Selected List.” www.twbooks.co.uk/authors/bibliographies/cosies.html
AudioPartners. The Stately Home Murder. www.audiopartners.com/books/100229.cfm?userid
“A Very Public Eye.” The Barbara Pym Newsletter 1.2 (December 1986): 7-8.
Charles, Kate. Homepage.
Coggin, Joan. The Mystery at Orchard House. 1946. Rpt. Boulder, CO: Rue Morgue Press, 2003.
-----. Who Killed the Curate? Back cover. 1944. Rpt. Boulder, CO: Rue Morgue Press, 2001.
Duncan-Jones, Katherine. Review, The Murder Room. The Oldie: November 2003. In “Pym Gleanings.” Green Leaves 9.2 (November 2003): 14.
The Friends of the
Grosset, Philip. “Theodora Braithwaite.” Clerical Detectives. http://homepage.ntlworld.com/philipg/detectives/braithwaite.html
Birthdays. Waterboro Public Library
Kirk, Geoffrey. “Kate Charles and D. M. Greenwood. “ The Way We Live Now: You’re All Booked. New Directions: September 1996. http://trushare.com/16SEP96/TR16SE96.htm
Review of No Cure for Death. Tangled
Val. Review of Mortal Spoils.
Patten, Bernard M. Review of “A Taste of Death.” Amazon.com. 8 May 2000 www.amazon.com/Taste-Death-Adam-Dalgliesh/dp/0345430581
Publishers Weekly.com. Review
Charles.” Pym-L posting.
Salwak, Dale. “Under the Spell of Barbara Pym.” Paper delivered at the Barbara Pym Conference, Harvard University 2 April 2005.
Julia. “The Narthex: Julia Interviews Kate Charles.” Julia
Marilyn. Review of Agatha
Raisin and the Potted Gardener. The New York Times:
and Dean James. By a Woman’s