Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey

Scribner Paperback Fiction/Simon and Schuster
300 pp
originally published 1949

Although this is listed as the third book in Tey's Alan Grant series, here he plays more of a background role rather than the main character.  That honor goes to
Robert Blair, a typical small-town English solicitor in the quiet village of Milford. His old and established legal firm, Blair, Hayward and Bennet, handles matters of "wills, conveyancing and investments." But with one desperate telephone call, Blair is thrust into a most bizarre case which takes him to a house called The Franchise.

Upon his arrival, he is met by Marion Sharpe and her mother, the owners of the house, along with Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard.  Grant is there investigating the story of Betty Kane, a demure young schoolgirl who claims that she had been kidnapped by the Sharpes one day after missing a bus and held prisoner in an attic room, where she was beaten when she refused to perform household duties.  According to Kane, Mrs. Sharpe left the door unlocked one night, and Betty was able to make her escape.  She was able to describe the inside of the house to a tee, down to the different types of suitcases in a closet, as well as the distinctive features of their car.  But the problem is that both Marion and her mother swear that they've never set eyes on the girl, and they're absolutely baffled as to her knowledge of the house. Blair is positive that the women are innocent, and despite some misgivings, agrees to help, despite the insurmountable odds against success.   And so it begins.

Tey's characters are believable, the plot is engrossing, but what makes this novel work well is how she successfully plunges her readers immediately not only into the crime, but into the mounting tension surrounding the case up until the end. And although The Franchise Affair is set in the countryside, it is a sophisticated story, not just another English country house-based mystery.

Although written in 1949, Franchise Affair is still a very good read, with some clearly recognizable elements (such as the power of the tabloids to fuel the fires of those who read them), and a completely different storyline than most of her earlier novels and of the novels of that period. Tey based this novel on a true crime of the 18th century focusing on another young girl, Elizabeth Canning.  If you're at all interested, there are two fictional accounts of this 18th-century story that I'm aware of:  Elizabeth is Missing, by Lillian de la Torre and The Canning Wonder, by Arthur Machen.

 For aficionados of classic mysteries, The Franchise Affair is definitely recommended. The end is a little sappy, but you won't care because the case is so satisfying.

fiction from England

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