Brat Farrar, Josephine Tey

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May 2, 2013

Brat Farrar

Brat Farrar

So having reread The Franchise Affair recently, and still unable to locate my copy of The Daughter of Time, I turned to one of my other Josephine Tey books recently, Brat Farrar, but in this case, the question that I went into this reread with was wondering if it would still feel as relevant as the Franchise Affair did to me.  Because Brat is a very different kind of book, which is in my opinion one of the marvelous things about Tey’s work—there’s no “Tey formula” to them.  If you’re new to her, you’ll find that you’re never going to know what you’ll be getting.  It’s like a present.  I like presents.

So does Brat Farrar hold up?  I think thematically the larger questions of morality and the whole “ends justify the means” stuff certainly holds up just fine, and I’ll discuss those themes in a bit.  But the writing here feels somewhat more old-fashioned, although the book is still very readable—I gulped it right down, just like I did the first time I read it.  One thing I did notice this time that I apparently missed on my first reading was that the setting seems a bit off, and it took me a bit to put my finger on what the issue was.

The novel is not really anchored in any specific time that Tey points out, but it presumably takes place after WWII because there are references to people being “bombed out”.  So given its publication date (1949), one just assumes it’s set somewhere in that vicinity in time.  But it somehow feels like it’s set more interwar, and there are a few iffy timeline items as a result.  Given that the lynchpin events of the book—the disappearance and presumed suicide of Patrick Ashby following the death of his parents in a plane crash off the coast—take place some eight plus years earlier,that puts those events right smack in the middle of The Blitz.  I’ll leave it to you to work out the problem with that and just say that there’s no sign here that the war ever happened—no mention of rationing, of the post-war issues Britain faced.  It’s a little timey-wimey, to quote The Doctor.

The story itself is one of those things that seems so implausible that it’s actually believable: a young orphan named Brat Farrar is mistaken for Simon Ashby by Ashby’s cousin Alec Loding on a London street.  Loding, a down-at-heel actor, realizes that Brat bears a striking resemblance to Simon, who is due to inherit his parents’ estate in a few weeks upon his 21st birthday, and thus to Simon’s dead twin Patrick, who presumably committed suicide and whose body was never recovered from the sea.  A plot is hatched for Loding to tutor Brat in everything Ashby, for Brat to collect what would have been Patrick’s inheritance (as the older twin), and to split the money after.  Brat refuses the offer initially, but eventually gives in upon learning that part of his inheritance is Latchett’s, a stud farm.  Brat loves horses.  From there it’s a matter of convincing his “brother” and his “sisters” and his “aunt”, as well as the family solicitor, that he is indeed the missing and presumed dead Patrick Ashby.

If you’re wondering where the mystery is, well, the mystery is that Brat eventually becomes convinced that Patrick Ashby did not commit suicide, but was murdered.  This naturally puts him in a bit of a quandary, because he obviously can’t voice his suspicions to anyone because he’s supposed to be Patrick Ashby.  It’s not like he can go to the police and say “I suspect X killed me.”—to expose the truth about himself would most certainly land him in the quod.  So he needs to continue his deception, which he grows increasingly uncomfortable with, in order to unmask a killer.

It’s a pretty little ethical dilemma that takes the usual imposter trope and gives it a good shake.  Normally, we don’t get to see things from the imposter’s point-of-view in detective fiction.  We get lead up the path by them just like the great detective and assume that they are who they say they are right up until the point where the detective says “But you’re not really Old Murder Victim’s Nephew, are you?  You’re really X, impersonating the nephew in order to get his inheritance!”  But here, we know right from the get go that Brat is not Patrick Ashby.  So it’s not a matter of “is he or isn’t he?” but one of “will he get away with it or won’t he?” followed by “will he keep this up or won’t he?” and a host of other questions.  Seeing the action from his point of view allows us to develop some empathy for the character—a young man, a foundling, with no family of his own and no real prospects or talents save his amazing skill with horses, is suddenly impersonating a much-loved young man with a huge family, a trust fund, and a horse farm.  Talk about your presents.  It’s easy to understand why Brat agrees to Loding’s scam, it really is.

Plus he’s just so charming.  Tey is a whiz at building a character.  I remember the first time I read this that I wanted him to get away with it, to get the money and the farm and live happily ever after.  I began devising these complicated scenarios in my head while I was reading that would allow him to actually be Patrick Ashby so that he wouldn’t be stealing Simon’s inheritance, but taking what was rightfully his.  I was convinced there was some sort of double-double twist to the whole thing, I wanted it so badly.  And I found myself doing the exact same thing this time.  You know he can’t be Patrick, that he’s not him, but you want him to be.  Brat is really a very awesome guy for a liar and a con artist.

And his moral dilemma is tricky.  As he enters into the Ashby family situation, he feels a real affinity for the siblings and their guardian, Aunt Bee, and he comes to regret what he’s doing because he knows that if they find out the truth that the pain they experienced over Patrick’s suicide, barely suppressed for 8 years, will all come back to the surface, and stronger.  He does not want to hurt these people.  But to continue with his impersonation will hurt them financially as well as emotionally.  And when he uncovers the truth about Patrick’s death, they will be hurt even more.  So it becomes a matter of which pain, and how much, he has to inflict upon them, because no matter what, his agreeing to enter into the deception sets up a load of hurt down the road.  So he has to ask himself if it’s better to continue deceiving these nice people and letting them believe the beloved Patrick is alive while he tries to find out what happened to the real Patrick, or expose himself as a fraud, and he then has to decide whether to expose the truth about Patrick, and thus himself, or whether to allow someone else to get away with murder.  Do the ends justify the means?  Are they better off thinking Patrick is alive or knowing for certain that he’s not, and if it’s the latter, is it right that he should continue to let them think Patrick is alive while he finds and exposes the truth?

It’s all very well done: the Ashby family is so real and carefully drawn that you feel like you’ve sat down to dinner with them, and it’s their disbelief, then hope, then belief that Brat really is Patrick that helps build the suspense.  I’m trying to think of the best way to explain how the suspense in this book follows several paths at once—there’s the “will Brat get away with it?” trail and how he risks being discovered in his deception the entire way through.  Then there’s the “will Brat figure out what really happened to Patrick?” trail, closely followed by the “Will Brat realize who did this?” trail and “Now Brat is in danger!” trail, not to mention the “How will he solve his problem?” trail and the “Is this the right choice morally and ethically?” trail.  It’s very layered, and deceptively complex.

From where I’m sitting, that makes Brat Farrar utterly delicious.

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