Tuesday, 13 November 2001

Josephine Tey: The Franchise Affair (1948)

Edition: Penguin, 1951
Review number: 991

The Franchise Affair may be Tey's best known novel (it is probably a toss up between it and Brat Farrar). It takes a famous eighteenth century crime and updates it into the twentieth century, and it may well be the most famous crime novel which doesn't involve a death.

The Franchise is the name of a house which stands on its own on a main road, and which is inhabited by the Sharpes, mother and daughter. Their quite life is suddenly interrupted when a sixteen year old girl makes a serious accusation against them - that they kidnapped her and imprisoned her in their attic, where she was systematically beaten over a period of a month. Her story is corroborated by her knowledge of the interior of the Franchise, a house which the Sharpes say she has never entered.

The story is told from the point of view of the Sharpes' solicitor, who is more used to the duller kind of work which would be expected of a small market town solicitor, mainly wills and conveyancing. It is thus assumed throughout that the girl is lying and that the aim is to prove it, by showing what she was doing in the missing month and how she came to know about the interior of the Franchise. Tey comes up with ingenious solutions to both of these problems though they have the flaw that they rely on twentieth century technology and so couldn't solve the equivalent problems for the eighteenth century version of the mystery.

One of the major themes of the novel is how it is impossible to know the truth about what is reported in the media, illustrated by the way that a tabloid takes up the girl's story and the misinformed comment in a liberal magazine which follows. While Tey takes things a little far to make her point - surely there must be some causes of this type which deserve to benefit from media publicity (child abuse scandals in children's homes are perhaps an obvious example) - it is difficult not to agree that much journalism panders to the prejudices of the lowest common denominator.

The slightly facile psychology of The Franchise Affair (particularly apparent in Tey's recurring fascination with the possibility that criminals could be infallibly detected through their facial features) does not stop the novel from deserving its place as one of the classics of the genre.

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