Somehow, I never read this before. Somehow I never had a copy until not too long ago, and somehow when I reread all my Teys at the beginning of the year I couldn’t put my hands on my copy. (It’s a trade paperback, which lives in a different place from the ordinary paperbacks. Stupid segregation.) Also, there is the sort of vague feeling that I was saving this: with Brat Farrar still unread, there was still a Tey novel out there that would be new to me. But then last week my Goodreads friend Jemidar pointed out that Josephine Tey was available free online, and that was all I needed to hear. I didn’t plan on reading it online in two big gulps, but that’s what happened, and the less said about what computer was used for those gulps the better, mmkay?
The synopsis: A young man called Brat Farrar, orphan and traveler and something of a chameleon, is approached by a less than scrupulous actor because he is the spitting image of another young man called Simon Ashby, the heir to Latchetts, something of an equestrian empire. The actor – Loding, an old friend of the family, if by friend you mean opportunistic crook – propositions Brat almost immediately; I enjoyed the fact that he had to be very specific that what he had in mind was a business arrangement, and a different sort of illegal-and-immoral than Brat initially assumes. Simon, he informs this striking young man, is a twin – or, rather, was, because the twin, named Patrick, killed himself shortly after their parents died in an accident when the boys were thirteen; he walked into the sea and drowned. But the note he left behind was somewhat open to interpretation: it is an apology, not specifically for suicide but for leaving, and Loding’s brainstorm upon seeing this young stranger who looks so very like Simon is to send Brat to the Ashbys as Patrick returned from not death but prodigality. And of course out of the money that that would bring, a monthly stipend would be forwarded to himself. Brat refuses; he’s disgusted by the idea. But then Loding mentions the horses. And Brat starts to wonder what, really, would be the harm in taking up his dream life.
The understanding of horses – the plain common sense of it – is a joy. (“It’s the sound of the crowd that worries her,” Gregg said. “Something she hears and can’t understand. If I were you, Mr. Patrick, sir, I’d take her out and walk her. Take her out and show her the crowds and she’ll be so interested she’ll forget her nerves.”) They’re not overly romanticized, seen through a soft-focus lens; horses can be a right pain in the rump just like any other creatures (and more often a literal pain there, if you see what I mean, than most), and are a chancy entity to pin your living onto; they can sicken and die or fail to live up to expectations – or kill. But for all of that they have a fascination which I thoroughly enjoyed seeing explored here.
“You haven’t got my favourite in your collection,” she said, having examined his choice, and brought another tome from the shelves. And then, finding that he was totally ignorant, she took him back to the beginning and showed him the foundations — Arab, Barb, and Turk — of the finished product. By midnight there were more books on the floor than there were on the shelves but they had both had a marvellous time.
(At which I must interrupt for a brief word toward whatever Recording Angel or Celestial Agent or whatnot who has the placing of infants: Dear Sir/Madame/Otherwise: This is the life I should have had. Horses, sir/madame/other – horses. That’s all I ever wanted. England would have been nice too. My own family is mostly lovely, so thank you – but this is where I belonged. There’s probably some Englishwoman out there exactly my age who loathes horses and wishes she had been born in Connecticut and would have been perfectly happy working in offices. Ill done, sir/madame/other.)
A brief – but intense – period of preparation using photos and maps and blueprints later, Brat slowly works himself into the Ashbys’ bosom at Latchetts, and something funny happens. The book is largely told from Brat’s point of view, so that the reader is given the privilege of knowing his reasoning and reaction. And even though his history (as, once upon a time, Bart Farrell, then Brat Farrar, and now Patrick Ashby) is thoroughly documented and I was given no reason to see him as an unreliable narrator, lying about the early years, Brat is … nice enough, and so well suited for the place, that I half believed that somehow he really was Patrick. And Simon is just enough short of nice (not vile, but, among other things, not loving the horses as he should, as Brat does) that the half-belief is bolstered by a wish.
There is also the anxiety about when these lovely folk will learn the truth. Because they will. And all of them (except for Simon) are characters I don’t like to think of being hurt. (Ruth is a flighty and self-centered little creature, but still to be protected.) Therein lies the suspense: with judicious foreshadowing and excellent character building, Tey creates a situation in which a wrong word could bring everything crashing down about their ears.
“Some day, Brat Farrar, he thought as he walked down the path to the Rectory, you are going to be faced with something that you couldn’t possibly have forgotten.
– He should thank God Patrick was only thirteen years old when he vanished; even a couple more years and there would have been a great many more associations, not to mention girls.
Before long, a new question begins to rise, as to whether part of Brat and Loding’s ploy might not have a little truth to it: perhaps Patrick did not kill himself.
The exposition in this book is masterful, and makes me sigh when I think of trying it myself. The history of the family is introduced in a completely painless manner – Josephine Tey never heard of the concept of “infodump”. Characters are presented, fully formed human beings with flaws and virtues and “hair … of what color it please God”: their characteristics come out in their actions and conversation, and it’s a lovely thing to watch.
Conversation between the younger set of twins:
“If I ran away for years and years, would you believe I was me, Jane?” Ruth asked.
“You wouldn’t stay away for years and years, anyhow,” Jane said.
“What makes you think I wouldn’t?”
“You’d come home in no time at all.”
“Why would I come home?”
“To see how everyone was taking your running away.”
Here’s where the doubts about Simon come it – first, the question of whether Brat, false as he is, might not after all be a better heir to the estate than his purported twin. “No one, no one, was going to come between Simon Ashby and the sun and get away with it.”
This possibly doesn’t really rate five stars. Even as I read the ending I recognized a problem: the solution to the mystery of eight years before is glossed over. Brat ponders the data he’s collected, and the apparent impossibility of what he’s thinking – and after a bit of time he has an epiphany in which all is revealed to him. The epiphany, however, is never shared with the reader: the details are never revealed. Also, I have no idea what the laws were in the forties and fifties in England, but I hardly think that fraud to usurp a fair-sized inheritance was looked at any more lightly than it would be now; they still hanged criminals in the 40’s and 50’s. I think whatever the personal feelings of those involved Brat should have faced a good deal more trouble than, in the end, he does… He took on the plot as something of a lark, and his only hesitations were purely moral: it was the wrong thing to do, and sordid. But he never really considers what will happen, on legal or personal levels, if he gets caught. Finally, Loding vanishes from the picture; he receives no comeuppance, and tries to take no action. Brat operates on a gentlemanly level and refrains from letting him be identified and brought into the situation – which is a very kind thing to do, considering Loding’s sister. But it might have been interesting to have him stop by the hospital for a brief visit at the end.
Still and all, there it is: the last new-to-me Tey. It was a wonderful read. (Thanks, Jemidar!)
Other quotes that made me happy:
“The Rector says that Ulysses was probably a frightful nuisance round the house,” said the undeviating Jane.
“Oh!” said Bee, interested in this sidelight on the classics. “Why?”
“He said he was ‘without doubt a — a gadget-contriver,’ and that Penelope was probably very glad to be rid of him for a bit.
So she walked in the sunlight over the fields, through the churchyard, and into the Rectory garden through the little iron gate that had caused that terrific row in 1723. Very peaceful it all was to-night, and very peaceful were the rival smiths, sleeping within twelve feet of each other over there in the corner in good Clare earth.
– There is nothing else about those smiths; I don’t know if the reader is just supposed to know, or is just not supposed to know. It may have something to do with Wayland the Smith, but it doesn’t quite seem to fit …
He glanced up as she came down the path and went back to staring at the lilac. “Wonderful colour, isn’t it,” he said. “Odd to think that it is just an optical illusion. What colour is a lilac when you are not looking at it, I wonder?”
Bee remembered that the Rector had once broken it to the twins that a clock does not tick if no one is in the room. She had found Ruth being surreptitious in the hall, and Ruth, when asked what this noiseless progress was occasioned by, had said that she was “trying to sneak up on the drawing-room clock.” She wanted to catch it not ticking.
“Ruth is planning her wardrobe for Tuesday,” Bee said tartly.
The Rector smiled a little. “The happy ones of the earth, the Ruths.”
“How do you know about fun fairs, George?” his wife asked.
“They had one at the Westover Carnival a year or two ago, I seem to remember. A most interesting study in masochism.”
It was a beautiful day, the day that Brat Farrar came to Latchetts, but a restless little wind kept turning the leaves over so that in spite of the sunlight and the bright air the world was filled with a vague unease and a promise of storm.
“Much too shiny!” thought Bee, looking at the landscape from her bedroom window after breakfast. “‘Tears before night,’ as Nanny used to say of too exuberant children. However. At least he will arrive in sunshine.”
“People who can’t sing are horribly frustrated,” Bee said, after a little.
Brat considered this non sequitur. “The highest mountain in Britain is Ben Nevis,” he said, proffering one in his turn.
Bee laughed at that and said: “No, I just meant that I should like to sing at the top of my voice, but I can only croak. Can you sing?”
“No. I croak too. We could croak together.”
“I doubt if it is legal to croak in a built-up area. One never knows nowadays. And anyhow, there is that.” She waved her hand at a large sign which read:
MOTORISTS. PLEASE REFRAIN FROM USING YOUR HORN.
THIS IS A HOSPITAL.
Loding: “Riches, my boy, don’t consist in having things, but in not having to do something you don’t want to do. And don’t you forget it. Riches is being able to thumb your nose.”
“Give it to old Abel to nail on his door.”
“Bless you, old Abel wouldn’t have cold iron on his threshold. Keep his visitors away.”
“Oh. Friendly with ‘them,’ is he?”
“Do all his washing up and keep his house clean, if you’d believe all you hear.”
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” Brat said. And set out for Latchetts.
“I suppose you wouldn’t like, in return for my confidences, to tell me something?”
“Tell you what?”
“Who you are?”
Brat sat looking at him for a long time.
“Don’t you recognise me?” he said.
“No. Who are you?”
“Retribution,” said Brat, and finished his drink.
- REVIEW: The end of your life book club (macleans.ca)
- Why we reread some books, and not others (theglobeandmail.com)
- So many books, so little time (salon.com)