The Franchise Affair – Josephine Tey

The surprisingly spoiler-filled Pamela Patrick cover (my edition)

I read this thinking throughout “This book would make a fantastic movie. I can’t believe it hasn’t been adapted – it has everything.” But it has been filmed, in Hollywood in 1950 only on VHS at the moment – co-starring Patrick Troughton, which means I really want it. The suspense throughout was amazingly well done – even without a literal life being at risk at any point, the stakes were quite high enough, and my involvement with the protagonists was very quickly clinched. The story is simple, and terrific: a girl of fifteen has shown up home after having been missing for weeks, black and blue and with a horrible story of having been held prisoner by two women who demanded she be their maid-servant. She describes the women, their car, and the house in exacting detail – a feat which is alarming and significant because the women are very nearly recluses, and the house is located behind walls high enough to block all but an elevated viewpoint. She can’t know what she does unless the story is true – and the story can’t be true – and these two women, mother and daughter, are in terrible trouble.

The Wynns’ home outside Aylesbury was in a countrified suburb; the kind of district where rows of semi-detached houses creep along the edge of the still unspoiled fields; self-conscious and aware that they are intruders, or smug and not caring, according to the character their builders have given them. The Wynns lived in one of the apologetic rows; a red-brick string of ramshackle dwellings that set Robert’s teeth on edge; so raw they were, so crude, so hang-dog. But as he drove slowly up the road, looking for the appropriate number, he was won over by the love that had gone into the decoration of these regrettable objects. No love had gone to their building; only a reckoning. But to each owner, as he took over, the bare little house had represented his “sufficient beauty,” and having found it he served it. The gardens were small miracles of loveliness; each succeeding one a fresh revelation of some unsuspected poet’s heart.

Nevil really ought to be here to see, Robert thought, slowing down yet once more as a new perfection caught his eye; there was more poetry here than in a whole twelve months of his beloved Watchman. All his clichés were here: form, rhythm, colour, total gesture, impact …

Or would Nevil see only a row of suburban gardens? Only Meadowside Lane, Aylesbury, with some Woolworth plants in the gardens?

Probably.

Well, there it is – that’s the difference between an Anne Shirley kindred spirit and the other sort, or sorts. It’s the perception of something like this neighborhood: what do you see? Do you only take in the fact that it’s a row of brick houses, some with flowers? Do you see deeper and see them as “so crude, so hangdog”? Or does your perception change when you realize the time and care – the love – put into them?

…It might, if you asked her, be wise not to remind Mr. Macdermott about it or he would stay up too late and she had great trouble getting him up in the morning.

“It’s not the whisky,” Blair said, smiling at her, “it’s the Irish in him. All the Irish hate getting up.”

This gave her pause on the doorstep; evidently struck by this new idea.

“I wouldn’t wonder,” she said. “My old man’s the same, and he’s Irish. It’s not whisky with him, just original sin. At least that’s what I always thought. But perhaps it’s just his misfortune in being a Murphy.”

I find it particularly interesting reading this sort of thing so soon after reading that astrology-themed anthology (I can’t believe the phrase “astrology anthology” was never used between those covers.) I mocked the concept that the entire population can be lumped together in twelve great huge masses, each mass seen as completely homogenous. But here Tey’s characters do something similar, over and over: people with that particular shade of slate blue eyes are (in the current slang) players; with baby blue eyes, plausible liars – and, particularly with those eyes being set even slightly irregularly, likely to be murderers; all Irish like to sleep in of a morning. Being half Irish (I would prefer to stay up late and get up late than ever get up early – mornings were invented by a sadist) with blue eyes (denim, I guess? Not very slate-y, thank God, nor light enough to be powder) meant that my eyebrows went up almost as much as being a Leo reading that story collection. There are other generalities demonstrated in The Franchise Affair, even as the main character Robert Blair scoffs at them: class, politics, gender. At least there are some reasons behind why all (or many) people of one socio-economic bracket might behave in a specific way; being born on a certain day never, as far as I can determine, makes for a binding factor among people.

It’s not too often that the protagonists’ motives for solving a case are as clean and clear-cut as they are in The Franchise Affair. Yes, there is the need to clear the Franchise ladies’ names. But overriding even that is the desire – no, the need to exact punishment. It isn’t so much vengeance as retribution. Marion and her mother long to see the girl responsible for the hell they have gone through “undressed in public” – and that becomes Robert’s life’s mission. Come what may, part of what sees them all through the horror of it all is the determination that Betty Kane will be not only held accountable, she will be publicly exposed as the evil little piece of work she is.

The Franchise Affair is like an episode of Criminal Minds made personal, without any fussing about whether behavioral analysis is or isn’t a science. Once the difference between what the girl is saying and what actually happened is completely understood, much of her makeup becomes very obvious, and that helps in the deduction of the rest. Interestingly, the character of Betty Kane is a sort of illustration of one side of the argument of “nature vs. nurture”: her birth mother was worthless, and she takes after her mother despite a doting father and the perfect adoptive family. The woman who considers herself the girl’s mother did everything right, and to all appearances had the results any mother would want: a quiet, well-adjusted, smart-though-not-brilliant, obedient girl. Appearances, however, are not only deceiving, they are very, very easily altered.

Horrifyingly, this is based on a true case: that of Elizabeth Canning, who wove a tissue of lies about being kidnapped and robbed and knocked out and locked up in 1753 … or was it true? No one knows.

Alan Grant’s participation in the story is peripheral – since the reader is wholeheartedly on the side of the accused, he is the enemy, at least technically, as he is the face of law enforcement required to investigate and prosecute based on the girl’s story. And if the story had been true it would be a righteous cause. But his reluctance to be on her side is masterfully shown; he has his job to do, his duty, but he is not happy with the situation whatever evidence there is.

And he’s right not to like it. Once the ball is started rolling, it will not be easy to stop, and no one involved is going to come out of this unscathed … with the possible exception, if she wins, of Betty Kane.

The characters are, as is to be expected of Tey, fantastic. Robert is a wonderful unlikely hero, clawing his way

Completely inaccurate cover art

out of the deep rut his life has become – and once he starts to emerge, there’s no telling where he’ll end up. The two Sharpe ladies, Marion and her mother, are never caricatures of a type or class or pigeonhole – they say and do and think unexpected things – in other words, they are about as close as you’re going to get in a book to real human beings. The supporting cast – Robert’s cousin and his aunt and his friend Bill Brough (the Patrick Troughton character) – are … I’m going to need to resort to a thesaurus soon… just wonderful.

Books restore my faith in humanity. Day to day dealings whittle away at it – ample evidence of obtuseness and ignorance and sheer stupidity erode it like crashing waves eat away at stone. But in books, wise thoughtful books with wry humor which bring deep satisfaction in the reading – these show me that even if I meet nothing but idiots from the moment I leave the house till I come home again, someone, once, even someone fifty years gone, someone has felt exactly as I do. This is the sort of book I want to write.

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7 Responses to The Franchise Affair – Josephine Tey

  1. Pingback: A Shilling for Candles – Josephine Tey « Stewartry

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  6. Paul says:

    The last quote “Three hundred years old they were” is from Tey’s The Man in the Queue.

  7. stewartry says:

    Quite right, thanks for pointing that out.

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