I got myself this lovely Penguin at Skoob Books, the (literally) underground bookstore at the Brunswick Centre in London. I was glad to get an edition with a nice cover by Romek Marber, who illustrated a lot of Penguin Crime novels of the early 60s (and you can read more about his work in this Creative Review article.).
The Franchise Affair is one of Josephine Tey’s more famous books, which ranks number 11 in the CWA top 100 and is described by Melvyn Barnes as ‘a fine study of character and a convincing portrait of the young lawyer as he becomes emotionally involved with his clients.’ It is based on a true story, the 1753 case of Elizabeth Canning, a maidservant who falsely claimed to have been abducted and held prisoner in a hayloft.
The first chapter has echoes of opening to The Hobbit, or to The Wind in the Willows. Robert Blair is a complacent family solicitor in the small English town of Milford, healthy and moderately wealthy, of regular habits, and with no reason for discontent except the occasional unwelcome yearning for change (mostly stimulated by his daily tea and biscuit).
His opportunity to shake things up a little comes out of the blue. Marion Sharpe, a local woman whom he barely knows, calls to say she has Scotland Yard in her house and can he come immediately as her legal representative. The house is the Franchise, a lonely and slightly ugly house largely hidden from the road between Milford and the next town. Blair protests his inexperience in criminal matters, but is eventually persuaded. He finds his new client and her unconventional mother accused of a strange and unlikely crime: kidnapping a girl from Aylesbury and keeping her prisoner in their attic room for a fortnight.
The girl, Betty Kane, is an absolutely typical schoolgirl with no hint of the fantasist. Her descriptions of the house are incredibly accurate, but for the most part could be lucky guesses. However, she had certainly been beaten by somebody when she arrived home at her adoptive parents’ house.
Meanwhile, the Sharpes are different enough to look suspiciously close to guilty. Marion is dark, ‘gypsyish’, a flamboyant driver, and unmarried at 40. Her mother, a ‘white-haired sybil’, looks ‘quite capable of beating seven different people between breakfast and lunch any day of the week’.
Blair takes up arms for the Sharpes, playing detective in an attempt to find out where Betty Kane was for her lost two weeks, if not at the Franchise. He realises that the girl’s case is circumstantial and that a conviction is unlikely, but without definitively proving that she was never in Milford, the Sharpes will be unable to clear their names. Indeed as soon as the story begins to circulate, their persecution by the local community begins with graffiti on the walls of the house and whispers in the teashop.
Blair welcomes the case as a break from the humdrum, but surprises himself by falling in love with Marion. This has a positive effect of shaking him out of his complacency, but also has some negatives. For one, he finds himself envious of his more flamboyant and active younger cousin Nevil, another supporter of the Sharpes.
Well, if he couldn’t be young and a poet, he could be a crutch. A dull thing, a thing resorted to only in emergencies; but useful, useful.
He also grows to hate Betty Kane. For all her youth, she is a formidable opponent.
She was wearing ‘week-end’ clothes, not her school things… Her young and simple and very-well-brought-up hat stood back from her face and showed the charming brow and the wide-set eyes … She had a very pleasant voice: young and light and clear, without accent or affectation.
No actress had ever had a better reception.
In summary, this is a classic crime novel well worth its classic status. Blair is a comfortable protagonist and it is good to see him waking up to life. His romantic growth is depicted with a warm humour and his detective efforts are realistically methodical. Chance plays a part in the story’s resolution, but it is a chance that has been earned through hard work.
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.