Stepping into the Bog: Josephine Tey, The Franchise Affair

franchiseaffairTey’s Detective-Inspector Alan Grant has only a bit part in The Franchise Affair, but his response to the case gets at the heart of what’s at stake in this intriguing novel. It’s not a ‘whodunit’ so much as a study in character and community, and the most threatening aspect of the specific crime is its challenge to readability. What lies behind the faces we see, whether of people or of buildings or communities? Grant, as his subordinate points out, is “famous at the Yard for his good judgment of people” — The Daughter of Time turns entirely on his upset at having “mistaken one of the most notorious murderers of all time for a judge.” When things look bad for the Sharpes, the mother and daughter accused of having kidnapped and abused innocent-looking young Betty Kane, he’s annoyed to have his initial liking for them (and dislike for their accuser) seem misplaced: “Now he thinks the wool was pulled over his eyes, and he’s not taking it lightly.” That things, and people, are not as they seem is essential to the form of the crime novel, yet here that formulaic certainty is worse than the offense itself. “How is she to judge,” reflects Marion Sharpe about Betty’s mother when the whole story has come out, “if appearances can be so deceptive?”

It’s unexpected that Marion would have so much sympathy to spare, considering what she has suffered because of Betty’s accusations. After all, the hostile responses she’s dealt with have themselves been the results of people assuming the worst about her and her mother because they appear guilty — and like guilty types, living as they do in isolation, and being unconventional to the point of eccentric. That surfaces can be misleading should be the Sharpes’ first line of defense; getting to know them is precisely what wins over their handful of supporters, most notably solicitor Robert Blair, whose initial response to their appeal for his help is suspicion that they might well be up to no good:

The old woman had a fanatic’s face, if ever he saw one; and Marion Sharpe herself looked as if the stake would be her natural prop if stakes were not out of fashion.

Blair isn’t the only one to associate the Sharpes with witches: “Give these midland morons a good excuse,” cautions his fellow lawyer Ben Carley, “and they’ll witch-hunt with the best.” Suspicion does quickly turn to hostility and violence: as long as they are unable to prove their innocence, the Sharpes become victims of this predatory mentality.

To an extent, Tey is just continuing the paradoxical strategy of any Golden Age “cozy”: a seemingly peaceful English village like Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead, or King’s Abbott in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, turns out to be a festering pocket of greed, jealousy, spite, and malevolence. The pastoral tranquility of the setting is a façade; the story’s central crime is not an aberration but an eruption, and the restored calm can only ever feel precarious, so certain are we that we’ll be back again for the next installment. Tey cares so little for the puzzle aspects of the story, though, that this formulaic oddity of the setting moves from background to foreground. The charm of the classic English town is compromised by its revealed dark side. “Don’t worry, sir,” a police officer says to Robert, who’s worried about the Sharpes’ safety; “Nothing’s going to happen to them. This is England, after all.” It turns out that he’s right about that last point, just not about what it means. The overall effect is not at all the nostalgic one often associated with “cozies”: just as Robert feels a mixture of pleasure and despair at the tranquil continuities of his own life before the Franchise affair, we’re prompted, surely, to wonder if this is a world that should be preserved or destroyed, policed or subverted.

One of the most unnerving aspects of the novel for me was that Betty Kane’s mean-spirited deception made all our “good guys” so angry that they started sounding an awful lot like bad guys. “An attractive face, on the whole,” Robert says to his cousin as they contemplate Betty’s photo. “What do you make of it?” “What I should like to make of it,” is the reply, “with slow venom, ‘would be a very nasty mess.'” As Robert prepares to face her in court, he declares his intention to “undress her in public . . . to strip her of every rag of pretence, in open court, so that everyone will see her for what she is.” He’s outraged that she might get away with her scheme and “go on being the centre of an adoring family”: “the once easy-going Robert grew homicidal at the thought.” When the truth comes out, and it’s revealed that whatever her other lies, her bruises are real, the general attitude seems to be that a beating was no worse than she deserved, and nobody seems shocked at the remark that “it was a pity her mother hadn’t done the same thing ten years ago.” Nobody, for that matter, censures the grown — and married — man who makes this statement for having an affair with a fifteen-year-old girl.

Is she really so appalling? At what point does she, like the Sharpes, slip from accused to victim? What threat does she really represent that the jury can reach a unanimous verdict without even hearing the remainder of the case (or retiring to discuss the evidence) and it’s greeted as justice? She’s shunned so completely that we never even find out what happens to her. Guilty though she certainly is, is she also a scapegoat, a focal point for disruptive forces that the community abhors and wishes to banish? Is it she who is really the witch, or some kind of shape-shifter, someone who has the terrifying capacity to make guilt look like innocence? Is it her real crime to embody and thus expose the deceptive safety of the world they all live in, making explicit a truth they all prefer to deny? “She can never again take a step onto green grass,” Marion says sympathetically of Betty’s mother, “without wondering if it is a bog.” But it wasn’t Betty who set The Franchise on fire and watched, face “alive with gloating,” as it burned to the ground.

Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar: ‘Who are you?’ ‘Retribution.’

Brat Farrar

I’ve been rereading The Daughter of Time for decades, so it’s odd that until now I had never read another novel by Josephine Tey. Mind you, in some respects The Daughter of Time is sui generis. And indeed all Brat Farrar has in common with it is Tey’s refreshing prose and keen eye for character.

If I were writing one of those annoying sales blurbs for Brat Farrar, I’d describe it as “The Talented Mr. Ripley meets Flambards.” I’m reading it now, in fact, because it was one of two titles I came up with as follow-ups to my book club’s reading of Ripley: I went scouting for other books connected to it in some way (which is part of our selection process), and I discovered that there were two other classic suspense titles from around the same time featuring imposters and identity theft: Brat Farrar and Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat. My book club voted for du Maurier, but I was too tempted by Brat Farrar not to order it as well.

Aside from the structural similarity of one man impersonating another, though, the two novels could hardly be more different, and of the two, much as I admired and enjoyed Highsmith’s deadpan sociopathy, it’s Brat Farrar that plays more to my personal tastes. For one thing, Brat — odd as he is — has a conscience, and so in this case a lot of the tension in the novel arises from his own discomfort with the fraud he’s perpetrating:

 He felt guilty and ill at east. Fooling [the lawyer] Mr. Sandal — with a K. C. sitting opposite you and gimletting holes in you with cynical Irish eyes — had been one thing. Fooling Mr. Sandal had been fun. But fooling Bee Ashby was another thing altogether.

Both protagonists are driven by a desire to belong, but in Brat’s case there’s a poignancy to his yearning:

He lay on the bed and thought about it. This sudden identification in an unbelonging life. He had a great desire to see this twin of his; this Ashby boy. Ashby. It was a nice name: a good English name. He would like to see the place too: this Latchetts, where his twin had grown up in belonging quiet while he had bucketed round the world, all the way from the orphanage to that moment in a London street, belonging nowhere.

 Later, when he’s well along in establishing his stolen identity, he is unexpectedly moved by a simple gesture from “his” Aunt Bee:

No one else had taken his hand in just that way. Casual but — no, not possessive. Quite a few had been possessive with him, and he had not been gratified in the least. Casual but — what? Belonging. It had something to do with belonging. The hand had taken him for granted because he belonged. It was the unthinking friendliness of a woman to one of her family. Was it because he had never “belonged” before that made that commonplace gesture into a benediction?

What Brat wants is not just to “belong” to a family but also to be part of the larger story Latchetts represents. Ashbys have lived there for generations: the estate — established but unpretentious, like its family (who will never change their traditional inn rooms for better ones when they attend the local agricultural fair) — represents the continuities and privileges of English country life. Brat is drawn into the scheme initially because he learns Latchetts is a stud farm and horses are his one love. This sets Tey up to include lots of horsiness in the novel, just for its own sake and for the fun of show-jumping and racing. But horses have histories, and thus they also embody that sense of lineage and tradition that Brat cherishes about Latchetts. He spends happy hours, in his new life as an Ashby, poring over the stud books: ironically, it’s his genuine passion for this part of the family lifestyle that makes him a better fit as master of Latchetts than Simon, the “brother” he displaced by showing up on the eve of Simon’s coming-of-age and bilking him of his inheritance.

Simon’s resentment at “Patrick’s” return from the dead is perfectly understandable, in the context of that displacement, and it stands to reason that as the one who loses the most by regaining his brother, he would be Brat’s chief antagonist — the chief skeptic about whether this young man who looks so much like him, and who knows so much about their family, their history, and their home, can actually be his long-lost brother. Surely it’s the heir who ought to represent and fight for the integrity of the line. That Simon’s resistance is both stronger and stranger than is completely accountable on those terms occurs, after a while, to Brat and to us, and thus the more sinister question arises: where was Simon when Patrick disappeared, presumably to his self-inflicted death? Could it be Simon himself who is the threat to the family and the estate? Is it possible that — what would it mean if — the interloper is a better Ashby than the one he supplants? How might Brat’s invasion become a tribute to the lost son of the house with whose life — and death — he increasingly identifies himself? “Out here in the open,” he reflects while riding the hills around Latchetts,

it had a reality that it had never had before. Up here, on that straggling path on the other side of the valley a boy had gone, so loaded with misery that this neat green English world had meant nothing to him. He had had horses like Timber, and friends and family, and a belonging-place, and it had all meant nothing to him.

For the first time in his detached existence Brat was personally aware of another’s tragedy.

“From being vaguely anti-Patrick,” he realizes, “he had become Patrick’s champion.” When he later confronts the man he holds responsible for Patrick’s death and is challenged to offer something “in return for my confidences,” he completes his transformation from invader to defender of the family:

“Who are you?”

Brat sat looking at him for a long time.

“Don’t you recognize me?” he said.

“No. Who are you?”

“Retribution,” said Brat.

But would exposure really be best — for the Ashby’s, for Latchetts, for his own hope of belonging? How can he prove his suspicions without revealing his own crime? And what’s to be done about the “sister” who arouses feelings in Brat that are not at all fraternal?

Some day the foundation of the life he was living here would give way; Simon would achieve the plan he was devising to undo him, or some incautious word of his own would bring the whole structure crashing down; and then there would be no more Eleanor.

It was not the least of his fears for the future.

Is there any hope that Brat can escape from the trap of his own making into a world where he really does belong and can be loved as himself? As Tey works her ingenious way through her story, the suspense of the crime plot becomes less interesting than the emotional and moral puzzle she’s created. And it’s beautifully fitting that the solution to that mystery, to “the problem of Brat,” turns on looking back through the records for connections and continuities that might turn a calculated deception into an unexpected restoration.