The Franchise Affair

A review of The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

It has taken me a long time to discover Josephine Tey, but I am determined to make up for lost time. Originally published in 1948, and nominatively the third in her Inspector Grant series, although her policeman only makes a fleeting appearance and makes a pig’s ear of the case, this is a clever, sophisticated, psychological thriller, a tale of how a series of unsettling events can turn cosy, comfortable lives upside down. I devoured it.

Robert Blair, a bachelor, a lawyer, lives a comfortable life with its daily rhythms and rituals. It is a little too easy and comfortable and he is beginning to realise that he is beginning to get a little bored with it all. The shot out of the blue that disrupts his life is a request from Marion Sharpe for help. She lives with her mother in a rambling old house, The Franchise, and has been astounded when the police have turned up on their doorstep with a fifteen-year-old girl, Betty Kane, accusing them of kidnapping the girl, holding her captive and beating her. She managed to escape in just her underclothing, sporting bruises.

The girl has almost total recall of the driveway and the inside of the house, which is surrounded by high walls and a solid gate, leaving Grant with no option but to arrest them. They are sent for trial. The press has a field day in stoking up animosity against the Sharpes. Betty is a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-the-mouth sort of girl and her tale is shocking and scandalous, but would these two women, distinctly odd as they might be, really carry out such a crime.    

Tey’s strengths are her ability to develop tension – this is a taut, psychological thriller – and to paint her characters vividly and with conviction. Her depiction of the two women is masterful. One can understand and sympathise with the plight in which they find themselves with, seemingly, no way out, and yet their eccentricity is so vividly described that it is also easy to see why they are the subject to what is little more than a terror campaign from the locals. Their house is besieged, windows are broken, and eventually the house is set on fire. The only people to show them a modicum of sympathy are Blair and two garage hands.

For Blair the Franchise Affair is a voyage of awakening. Initially, he is reluctant to help as the Sharpe’s case is not his firm’s normal cup of tea, but restless and bored with his existence he is drawn into what becomes an exciting and satisfying case, taking him well out of his comfort zone and giving him a reason to live. The fact that he falls for Marion obviously helps, but he is quick to try and prove the women’s innocence.

It seems a fruitless case, with all lines of enquiry drawing a blank. Just before the trial, though, there is a chink of hope as Marion spots something in Kane’s statement that cannot be true. Further analysis of Kane’s statement supporting her accusations show that her vivid power of recall is rather akin to that of a fortune teller, weaving obvious deductions into a convincing tale. A double decker bus and the emergence of a stranger from Denmark lead to the discovery of a travelling salesman and a whole different side to Kane emerges.

Tey keeps the tension going until the end and while the motivation behind the vendetta of the girl against the Sharpes, other than to get her out of a hole, is woolly, the tale shows how appearance and front, aided by a media campaign, can subvert popular opinion, a lesson that is as, if not more, relevant today. Even once the trial is over, Tey has not done with her reader, leaving another, perhaps even more dramatic, twist to the story right to the end.

A fantastic book.

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