#1028: The Franchise Affair (1948) by Josephine Tey

Franchise Affair

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The Franchise Affair (1948) was the first novel by Josephine Tey that I ever read, back in the roseate days of probably 2005. Several years later, with classic era crime and mystery fiction more my bag, I read the rest of Tey’s criminous oeuvre, but nothing quite came close to the sweetness of that first taste. And so this return visit to the eponymous gloomy house where a 15 year-old girl claims to have been held captive by the two women who reside there was undertaken slightly nervously — memory can play tricks, after all. Well, everyone relax; we can add this to The White Priory Murders (1934) and Green for Danger (1944) on the list of recent rereads I enjoyed even more second time around, and holy hell if it doesn’t seem to me now one of the most perfect little books I’ve ever encountered.

Key to appreciating this so much second time round was in knowing that Tey has not at all written the sort of tightly-wound puzzle plot with “[e]verything deduced from the egg stain on the waistcoat” which so normally delights me, but instead a very gentle, charming tale that shows its teeth just as you think things are getting too cozy. It stands to reason that in the somnolent atmosphere of Milford there will be bored elements ready to react violently to the accusations young Betty Kane makes, particularly when the classist divisions of post-war British society are stirred in (“Anyone who has more than six chimneys is rich…”) and the chance to vent frustration against the “foreign bitches” in the big house presents itself.

The absolute genius of Tey’s undertaking is how she shows the increasingly-powerful hand of the media in the persecution of Marion Sharpe and her mother, with rag-of-the-day the Ack-Emma captured with a piquancy that, dear god, makes you ache with familiarity all these decades later:

It was run on the principle that two thousand pounds for damages is a cheap price to pay for sales worth half a million. It had blacker headlines, more sensational pictures, and more indiscreet letterpress than any paper printed so far by British presses. Fleet Street had its own name for it — monosyllabic and unprintable — but no protection against it. The press had always been its own censor, deciding what was and what was not permissible by the principles of its own good sense and good taste. If a ‘rogue’ publication decided not to conform to those principles then there was no power that could make it conform.

And Tey is equally casually savage in her treatment of the people who would be stirred into action on such tenuous grounds:

“We were all discussing that case on Friday. Imagine beating her half to death like that.”

“Then you think they did.”

She looked puzzled. “The paper says they did.”

“No, the paper reports what the girl said.”

She obviously did not follow that. This was the democracy we deified.

Indeed, the entire book is an absolute triumph of minor characters, from the absent-minded Mrs. Tilsit whose husband, solicitor Robert Blair is wont to ponder, must have gotten a travelling job “as an alternative to flight or suicide”, to the never-seen Bishop of Larborough whose opinions are dismissed on the basis of him having “married one of the two grand-daughters of Cowan’s Cranberry Sauce”. And Tey doesn’t just save the memorable epithets for her minor characters, with her core cast equally captured as much at fault as in celebration: the comfortable, predictable life of Robert Blair is laid magnificently bare in the opening pages, and the picture of his Aunt Lin fishing under the dining table for a foot stool has stayed with me almost every day since my first read. Equally, elderly Mrs. Sharpe’s first line to Robert when he goes to their aid is one of the most pitch-perfect character moments in the whole Golden Age, as is Robert’s cousin Nevil, who “write[s] poems of an originality so pristine that only Nevil himself could understand them”, returning from tea at The Franchise and revealing that they had spent at least some of their time discussing “the concentrated evil of a hen’s face in a close-up”.

The plot, of course, is an updated version of the Elizabeth Canning case, and Tey’s intelligent speculation around this allows for a solution which, no spoilers, actually feels decidedly more modern than the setting of the book would have one suspect. Indeed, this is another way that Tey manages to work in both a gentle, realist detective story with something sharper and less pleasant, something harder to look at, tempered by, or perhaps paralleled with, a growing reflection on the nature of justice, as became an increasing fixation in the Golden Age:

Looking at the two figures in the dock Robert thought that in the “bad old days” only the guilty were put in the pillory. Nowadays, it was the untried who bore the pillory and the guilty went immediately into a safe obscurity. Something had gone wrong somewhere.

This is, at heart, simply a very human book about the casual way we form our allegiances and the damage that can be done by unthinkingly committing to a course that has at its end only the castigation of others for our own simple, brief pleasure. And again Tey explores the parallel — of easy acquaintance made on compassionate grounds, for the support of those who deserve better — effortlessly. The release, when it comes, is muted for being played out against a terrible loss that you feel all the more acutely because of how much you really do care for the people on both sides of the case, not least because of the decency of how they treat each other (“Against his will, Robert’s eyes went to [her], and came away again at once. It was crucifixion”). And if the final line doesn’t leave you a little lachrymose, well, you’re a stronger reader than I.

So, yes, is it really a surprise that nothing else Tey wrote came close to this in my estimations? She was always good at character — c.f. Brat Farrar (1949) — at intriguing setups — c.f. The Man in the Queue (1929) — and at fascinating, nuanced explorations of unlikely situations — c.f. To Love and Be Wise (1950), The Daughter of Time (1951) — but never did she mix them as effectively, as smoothly, as here. At this very moment this goes straight into the never-to-be-completed list of My Ten Favourite Golden Age Mysteries, and I’m more than happy to stretch the date of the Golden Age to put it on there — it deserves its place, and comes recommended in the highest possible terms.

29 thoughts on “#1028: The Franchise Affair (1948) by Josephine Tey

    • Yes, for all its slow pace the prose really is a delight; I’m amazed, given how impatient I used to be, that I had such positive memories of this, and upon returning to it I’m delighted to find it so enjoyable again. Maybe I’ve matured πŸ™‚

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    • Yeah, the ideas of sexual identity are quite striking — I was tempted to try and talk about it in the review, but it’s too close to spoilers, feel, and best left to the reader to discover pure. But it really does feel very modern in that regard.

      The darkness of Milford, too, when the house and its residents come under attack, that security of anonymity and how it manifests in certain behaviours…again, it feels like the kind of thing a modern novelist would earn rhapsodies for.

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        • The sexual agency given to a girl who hasn’t yet reached the age of consent really doesn’t feel old fashioned to me, there’s something uncomfortably modern about it that sort of takes my breath away,

          The other stuff — snobbery, weird beliefs –sure, but it’s all part and parcel of the era, and as such almost makes no impact on me at all, so inured to its effects have I become. Maybe that’s why the sexual identity stuff stands out so starkly,

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  1. I think this is easily her best book, and it’s the only one I that I actively enjoyed. I have tried to like her work though – I believe there’s only A Shilling for Candles, the one Hitchcock adapted, that I haven’t yet read. The last time I gave her a go was with Brat Farrar and then To Love and Be Wise, the former bored me half to death and I thought the latter was absolute drivel from start to finish.

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    • I remember thoroughly enjoying The Man in the Queue, but the ending is…odd, even if I do understand what she was doing. And Brat Farrar is lovely, but my word don’t you ever learn a lot about horses.

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  2. I enjoyed this one and agree with your praise. The only other Tey I have read is Miss Pym Disposes. It was good (particularly the ending) but not to the level of The Franchise Affair.

    Shame that your Top 10 list of Golden Age Mysteries won’t ever appear. I would enjoy seeing that including the criteria you would use to select the best of the best.

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    • I remember Miss Pym being a wonderful examination of setting, but somewhat underachieving in the plot department. The mystery was thin, and the wonderful characters didn’t quite make up for it in my mind.

      As to my Top 10 GAD Mysteries, never say never. It’s a list whose contents I’m a little vague on at present, but maybe it’ll see the light of day on here at some point. Blogging is a hungry pursuit, and I might have to dig deep to find sufficient material to keep going in the years ahead πŸ™‚

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  3. A Shilling for Candles is not fairly clued. You’re basically told the vital clue immediately before the murderer is revealed. I like her books because she can write delightfully, not really for the puzzles. The Singing Sands has one of my favorite opening chapters ever.

    I’m not British, but my impression after having read all of Tey’s books is that in general she was pro-British Empire with some contempt for foreigners, some contempt for the working class, conservative personal values, and a few silly biological beliefs (like that people with a certain shade of blue eyes are always nymphomaniacs). Not blatantly offensive, hit you over head stuff, but the indicators pop up here and there in her work.

    But that’s only guessing as real people don’t fit into neat little boxes as they can do in fiction. Real people are full of inconsistencies and apparent contradictions.

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    • I read Tey before it occurred to me to find indicators of authors’ personalities in their works, so I’m afraid I failed to note any of the consistencies you mention.

      Makes me wonder what conclusions people might come to about me after reading my novel…!

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      • I read about a rumor, no idea if it’s true, that the playwright Anthony Astor/Muriel Wills in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy was based on Josephine Tey, who wrote plays for the London stage under a male pen name.

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          • I’m sure she wasn’t. I can’t recall where the rumor originated, or if that was even clear, rumors being what they are. I read about in an introduction to one of her books. These are the relevant passages in Three Act Tragedy:

            “Miss Wills has a curious personality. She is one of those people who are quite unable to impress themselves on their surroundings. She is nondescript. But she is extremely observant and extremely intelligent. She takes her revenge on the world with her pen. She has the great art of being able to reproduce character on paper.”

            “Her spiritual home….a boardinghouse in Bournemouth”

            The latter doesn’t convey anything to me, but the implication was said to be a “dreary conventionality and respectability”, and that Tey had a “deep uneasiness about any enthusiasm that, to her, smacks of crankiness” (crankiness in this case referring to eccentricity, not irritability), one example being Scottish nationalism in The Singing Sands.

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  4. I bought a copy of this based on your positive comments some time back. It’s a Pocket Books edition with a really nice cover, although my bargain hunting resulted in said cover not being attached to the binding, along with the first dozen or so pages. Fortunately I’ve learned that repairing paperbacks is actually pretty easy, so this will be another book to experiment on it. Perhaps I’ll do a post showing how to do it.

    I have the impression that The Daughter of Time is Tey’s “famous” book.

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    • Well, I’d certainly be interested if you did write about it: the number of books I’ve been put off buying because of the appalling condition of their binding is pretty phenomenal. Anything that makes them more desirable — not least because beaten and broken editions tend to be cheaper — is an intriguing possibility.

      And, yes, I think TDoT us her famous book, adding as it did to interpretation of historical detail. A wonderful achievement for a novelist, even if the book itself is a little…odd.

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  5. Couldn’t agree more! Also, a fairly recent re-read of Daughter of Time confirmed that I am not going to change my mind and become a Tey fan (and that the book is vastly overrated). But Franchise is the one I always liked (decent film version too).

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    • I don’t know if I’d prefer an author of eight books to have one brilliant one surrounded by mediocre offerings or simply write eight very good mysteries without anything being really fabulously standout.

      I mean, Rupert Penny did the latter, and I’d consider myself far more a Rupert penny fan than a Tey one, but that’s also in part because Penny’s milieu is just far more appealing to me. Maybe the question is unanswerable.

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      • Why limit yourself to only these two scenarios though? I haven’t seen any of her plays so can’t comment on her work as “Mackintosh” but I remain basically unenthusiastic of her contribution to the crime genre and don’t really understand the general adulation. But it’s not just her as I’m not keen on Marsh or Wentworth either. Give me Allingham instead any day of the week …Farrar is very well written but I also found it dull – I am really in agreement with Colin. But Franchise Affair is one I really like. And Daughter of Time seems very weak to me, am always bewildered by those who consider it a classic. But there you are, my critical faculties are clearly a mystery even to myself 🀣

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          • I remember some fabulous windswept moors in The Man in the Queue and others, so can attest o the power of her prose. TDoT I remember only vaguely, like almost everything years after I read it, but the overall impression is nowhere near as strong as the one left by this one.

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            • It’s been 30ish years since I read Daughter of Time and I didn’t keep it or ever re-read it (since I didn’t care for it), so my memory could be faulty. However, my recollection is that it seemed more like a thesis than a mystery book. At the time my mother described it as full of straw man fallacies.

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  6. Reading this is a clearly remembered event for me, thanks to Tey’s superlative prose and rich sense of character–along with that sharp sense of how the press can drive such a case. However, I agree with richmonde about the classism and misogyny supporting the central plot device. (Somewhere Sarah Waters has a great discussion of this in regard to how TFA inspired her novel The Little Stranger.)

    On the one hand, this reflects attitudes apparently surging then–on the other, it makes spending more time with Tey something that I now shy away from.

    I agree with Elizabeth about the fabulous opening chapter of The Singing Sands–joining the great set-piece introduction of Miss Pym Disposes–and I remember enjoying To Love and Be Wise. (The Daughter of Time is lost in the mists of the past for me.)

    But I think the weak ending of Brat Farrar is of a piece with MacKintosh’s telling Fred Dannay (I think) that she doesn’t see herself as a mystery writer.

    And because of that, in my opinion, accurate self-diagnosis, I too don’t put her in the front rank of classic mystery authors.

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    • I agree: I don’t put here anywhere near the front rank of mystery authors either — one swallow does not a summer make — but I find her characters superbly captured, and her situations novel. I remember a lot of the people in Brat Farrar, Miss Pym, and others even if I don’t remember precisely what events they underwent.

      If only the woman could plot, she’d have been something fabulous in the genre. But, well, I’m sure she achieved what she set out to at every stage, so wishing for her to have been something else feels a little uncharitable…even if it does come from a good place πŸ™‚

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  7. Agreed on all levels. With plotting skill up to the rest of her attributes, she could have been at the very top rankβ€”and certainly many of those at that level seemed to think she already was. As you say, though, it does seem as if those rich, if frustrating, books accomplished what she intended.

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  8. Pingback: THE COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION: Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair | Ah Sweet Mystery!

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