As a mystery buff, I am obviously a big fan of what are known as Golden Age detective novels. The “big three” novelists from that period are Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh–the women with the longest lists of published works and most rabid fans. But there is a fourth British Crime Queen, and the only reason she’s not grouped with those first three that I can think of is that her career began to flourish much later than the others. Josephine Tey’s productivity comes near the end of those years we think of as the Golden Age (roughly 1920-1950)—her first Inspector Grant novel (The Man in the Queue) debuted in 1929; Inspector Grant wouldn’t make another appearance in print for 7 years, and most of Tey’s mystery fiction appeared in the late 40’s and early 50’s.
The Franchise Affair is one of these later works. Although it is ostensibly an Alan Grant novel, Grant is not the focus of the book, nor does he solve the crime. That honor is given to country solicitor Robert Blair, who is just thinking of heading home one afternoon when his phone rings. Two local women are in need of legal assistance, as they have been accused of kidnapping and beating a 16 year old girl. Blair, whose legal experience is mostly a case of drawing up wills and other routine matters, blusters a bit, but finally agrees to come to The Franchise, the big house on the outskirts of town.
There he is confronted with Marion Sharpe, her elderly, tart-tongued mother, and Inspector Grant, as well as the local inspector. He hears the story, then meets the victim, Elizabeth “Betty” Kane, whose description of the house, its contents, the women, and their car, all tally. The Sharpes deny ever seeing Betty Kane, let alone holding her hostage for a month. Blair realizes the police will have difficulty proving a case against the Sharpes and seems to think the issue will die down, until a national rag gets hold of the story and blasts it all over the country. As a result, the Sharpes become targets of abuse, Betty Kane is put on a pedestal, and Robert Blair, who is convinced that Betty is lying, determines to find out the truth before the police unearth any kind of evidence that might support her ludicrous story.
There are several things that stand out about this book. First, it’s unusual for a crime novel to not involve a murder—one rather expects a body, after all, and here the only thing dead is the reputation of two women already viewed with some suspicion by the locals because they are not native to the town. Second, Tey based this book on one of the most famous criminal trials in England, the Elizabeth Canning case, taking a form of the original woman’s name and the basic details and updating them into what was then a more contemporary setting. Reading the details of Elizabeth Canning’s story years ago, I was really struck at how little things have changed in 250 years: the press making a meal out of something and condemning people before they’ve even been tried, basic human nature, and the inherent decency of many people. As a result, The Franchise Affair, despite being over 60 years old, stands up remarkably well as a study of human nature and the mob mentality. Plus it’s a cracking good story, richly written, with really interesting characters.
Tey’s eye for all of this is pretty disparaging as Blair works tirelessly to find some piece of evidence that will knock the legs out from under Betty Kane’s story. The Sharpes come in for a substantial amount of abuse from the townspeople, who start out as gawkers and end up engaging in a pretty nasty amount of vandalism and rumor-mongering. The “newspaper” that prints Betty’s story makes no effort to verify it first, and while it does not mention the Sharpes by name, it has no qualms about printing a picture of their home and following up with numerous abusive letters written in support of Betty Kane. It’s hard not to admire Blair, who refuses to give up and staggers on against public opinion and overwhelming odds, despite him being so out of his depth, or the Sharpes, who tire of hiding behind their walls and eventually venture into the town, heads held high. What is remarkably difficult to grasp is why the police, once the proverbial poop hits the fan with the newspaper story, concentrate on proving the Sharpes’ guilt instead of their innocence–the press story is highly critical of the police for not bringing a case against the Sharpes, and you’d think the police would want to save some face by showing that they were right not to act. Cynically, Tey suggests it’s more about damage control for them then a matter of guilt or innocence. Even Blair’s legal pal Kevin points out to him that “justice is for the courts to decide.”
That may be true, but underneath the mystery here is what happens when justice lets one down. Betty Kane is a really evil character, a nasty piece of work, and yet she manages to fool most everyone she encounters into believing she is nothing more than a young, innocent school girl who has been subjected to a traumatic sequence of events. Her random selection of two innocent women to victimize in order to cover up her own wrong-doing could result in prison terms for them, and likely would have had Blair not been so dogged in pursuit of the truth. And the police and the press would have been complicit in a miscarriage of justice.
There’s a lesson in all of that this is still relevant today, with our 24/7 media blitzes and the almost instantaneous dissemination of information that hasn’t been fact-checked. I haven’t read this book for a number of years, but I found it still not only readable, but relevant. Check it out.
A brief note: I am fully aware of leaving Margery Allingham off the list of Golden Age writers in the first paragraph. I am not, I admit, very familiar with her books; the only one of them I’ve read I disliked so much that I never read another one.