Confessions of Another Common Reader

Josephine Tey – The Franchise Affair

November26

Although hopelessly drawn to print in its many forms, I count the Guardian Review as one of the most potent drugs in my personal pantheon of addiction. As well as engrossing me for an hour or so every weekend when I could be actually shrinking the tottering stacks, I frequently come away from an issue with several more books on my list.

It was under the Grauniad’s insidious influence that The Franchise Affair made its appearance on my TBR list: Sarah Waters provided a long piece describing it as a key influence on her Booker-shortlisted The Little Stranger (warning: don’t read her piece until after you’ve read the book as it does CONTAIN SPOILERS). Despite owning a couple of her books, I’ve still never read any of Sarah Waters’ own novels – but the piece was completely compelling as an advert for Josephine Tey.

The copy I read fell into my hands over the summer, as part of a haul from a fabulous house-party in Somerset hosted by a former university room-mate. (Incidentally, I strongly recommend her house to you as a holiday destination, if you can club together enough of a party to make the most of it: it’s available for holiday lets, and it has the most wonderfully capacious and eclectic library). We were only there for a couple of days, so I didn’t manage to read everything on which I laid my grubby little hands, but mine ever-generous hostess graciously allowed me to borrow a few. Enabler.

The Franchise Affair is a fantastic read. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a book that is both so completely of its period and social class – the tea tray in the office, the telephone calls placed via a manual operator at the exchange, the servants – and yet so totally modern (because completely timeless) in its observations of human behaviour.

The story is seen mainly from the perspective of country lawyer Robert Blair. Despite having no interest and little experience in criminal law, being a basically decent human being, he finds himself compelled to go to the aid of the hysterical woman who rings him up late one Friday afternoon. Marion Sharpe is searching for a lawyer to support her as she and her mother are questioned by Scotland Yard in relation to their alleged kidnapping, imprisonment and beating of Betty Kane, a teenager who has been missing from her home for a month. Betty’s account of her captors and her prison seem to match exactly the Sharpes and their remote home, the Franchise – right down to the suitcases in the wardrobe.

I was totally absorbed in the unfolding of the plot: the book is shot through with such clarity of insight into the whole business of reputation, and how quickly it can be torn to shreds, as well as furnishing some clever observations on the nature of criminality. The characters, if perhaps a little clichéd by modern standards, are thoroughly engaging, and it keeps the suspense up for a very respectable portion of the narrative.

Fans of Dorothy L Sayers should love this, as indeed should anyone who has an interest in the minutiae of a particular slice of English society at that time in its history. I gulped it down, and am really looking forward to reading more of Miss Tey in 2010.

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