I’d never heard of Josephine Tey until various British book bloggers praised her. As a lover of a good cozy crime book though, once I had heard about her I decided to make up for lost time by reading The Franchise affair. I’m glad I did!
The novel opens with a succinct introduction to the quiet county town of Milford and unlikely hero Robert Blair, an unmarried solicitor who has started to experience an “odd sensation” in his chest recently:
“Until the last year or so, he had found no fault with certainty or placidity. He had never wanted any other life but this: this quiet friendly life in the place where he had grown up. He still did not want any other. But once or twice lately an odd, alien thought had crossed his mind; irrelevant and unbidden. As near as it could be put into words it was: ‘This is all you are ever going to have.’ And with the thought would come that moment’s constriction in his chest. Almost like a panic reaction; like the heart-squeezing that remembering a dentist appointment would cause in his ten-year-old breast.”
Fortunately for Robert, he receives a telephone call from Marion Sharpe (until now only known to him by sight) asking for his help as she is in trouble with Scotland Yard. His initial objections overridden, Robert arrives at The Franchise, the isolated house where Marion and her mother live and where Detective-Inspector Allen relates an extraordinary story. Fifteen year old Elizabeth Kane, missing for a fortnight, “walked into her home near Aylesbury late one night wearing only a dress and shoes, and in a state of complete exhaustion.” She claims to have been kidnapped by two women whose description fits the Sharpes, who locked her up, fed her little, beat her often and forced her to work as a domestic drudge until she managed to escape. And Elizabeth has startlingly detailed descriptions of the Sharpes and their home to back her up. But the Sharpes completely deny this story.
The questions for the Yard and Robert Blair are is the story true? and if not, how does Elizabeth know so much about the Sharpes and The Franchise and where was she for the two weeks she was missing?
Considering the dearth of bodies found in the library (or anywhere else for that matter), watching Robert solve the mystery is surprisingly interesting. Tey has a knack for apt descriptions- Marion “looked as if the stake would be her natural prop if stakes were not out of fashion.” , Larborough “was bicycles, small arms, tin-tacks, Cowan’s Cranberry Sauce, and a million human souls living cheek by jowl in dirty red brick; and periodically it broke bounds in an atavistic longing for grass and earth. But there was nothing in the Milford country to attract a race who demanded with grass and earth both views and teahouses; when Larborough went on holiday it went as one man west to the hills and the sea, and the great stretch of country north and east of it stayed lonely and quiet and unlittered as it had been in the days of the Sun in Splendour. It was ‘dull’; and by that damnation was saved.” In The Franchise affair, she uses this talent to great effect, including not only a mystery but also humorous views of human foibles- for example the war between the Milford garage and stables:
“Across the narrow lane, face to face in perpetual enmity, stood the local livery stable and the town’s newest garage. The garage frightened the horses (so said the livery stable), and the livery stable blocked up the lane continually with delivery loads of straw and fodder and what not (so said the garage). Moreover the garage was run by Bill Brough, ex-R.E.M.E, and Stanley Peters, ex-Royal Corps of Signals; and old Matt Ellis, ex-King’s Dragoon Guards, looked on them as representatives of a generation which had destroyed the cavalry and an offence to civilization…
Today the Signals wanted to know the difference between libel and slander, and what exactly constituted defamation of character. Was it defamation of character to say that a man was ‘a tinkerer with tin cans who wouldn’t know a nut from an acorn’?”
– wry social commentary and a hint of romance. I’m looking forward to reading the remainder of Tey’s novels- suggestions are welcome- and was interested to see this one included in Tana French’s top 10 mysteries list in The Guardian this week. Which reminds me, I must rescue French’s first novel from my TBR pile and read it soon.