Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Franchise Affair

If you like mystery novels, be prepared for spoilers ahead — though I try not to be too explicit, I still give a lot away.

The Franchise Affair (1948) is a mystery novel by Josephine Tey, one of the most remarkable writers ever to work in that genre. (She’s also something of a mystery herself. She was a Scot whose real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh — “Josephine Tey” was just one of her pseudonyms — who worked in London for much of her adult life, and . . . not much else is known about her.) The Franchise Affair is a modernization of one of the great “true crime” stories of the eighteenth century, and is generally considered one of the classic mysteries.

However, recently in the Guardian Sarah Waters — an interesting novelist herself — offered a strong dissent from the usual view. While admitting that “in some ways Tey's retelling of the Elizabeth Canning story is a quite brilliant one,” Waters is “mystified and appalled” by the general tenor of the story, which, in her reading, is driven by a particularly ugly form of British class warfare: it’s a “bilious, bigoted” tirade against the manners and morals of the unruly working classes.

And you know what? I think Waters nails it. I read The Franchise Affair just a few months ago, and I found it much less satisfying than some of Tey’s other work, but I didn't describe it to myself in the terms that Waters uses — I was thinking more of the way that mysteries tend to work. In this novel, the protagonist is a small-town solicitor named Robert Blair who, though not a specialist in criminal law, takes up the cause of two local women, an elderly mother and her middle-aged daughter, who are accused of kidnapping a teenage girl and forcing her into slavery in their house, until after a month of misery she manages to escape.

Right from the beginning, Blair — who doesn't know any of these people at all — determines that the mother and daughter are innocent and that the girl who accuses them is a lying, scheming little bitch. He never wavers in this view of the case, even when evidence seems to be strongly against his new friends, and in the end . . . he is proven to be precisely right.

That was what threw me. Blair was so certain, I felt that Tey was — perhaps over-obviously! — setting the reader up for a reversal. But the reversal never came. All Blair’s instincts were right all along. The “mystery” of the book turns out to be the explanation for the girl’s lies, and for their plausibility. And while the late revelations of the girl’s real story are well-handled, that just wasn’t what I was expecting — or not all that I was expecting.

There are some other things that are strange about the story. At the darkest hour, Blair’s aunt says she will pray for an angel to come and set everything right, and the very next morning a man comes to Blair’s office with information that reveals all and eliminates the clients’ danger. It’s almost as though Tey is playing with her readers — almost as though The Franchise Affair is a po-faced, deeply ironic parody of the genre.

But Waters’s essay gives a much more plausible explanation for the book’s strangeness — alas: I was enjoying my speculations about its irony. Class-based angst can make a writer do some strange things.

The Franchise Affair is very much worth reading, though — all of Tey’s novels are interesting for reasons unrelated to what mysteries usually do. I think the best of them is her last, The Singing Sands, though The Daughter of Time — in which her detective Alan Grant lies in a hospital bed and tries to figure out whether Richard III really murdered the little princes in the tower — is justly famous.

(Cross-posted at The American Scene.)


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