Some time ago, we watched the 1988 TV version of The Franchise Affair, which was the last TV work overseen by Terrance Dicks and the second of two adaptations of Tey that he produced for the BBC's "Classic Serials", effectively putting this mystery writer in the same bracket as Dickens, Bronte and Thackeray. I wonder why, of all mystery writers, Dicks chose her to make canonical...
Robert Blair is a partner in a legal firm whose "business is mostly wills, conveyancing, and services", based in the smallish town of Milford. One morning he's rung up by Marion Sharpe he has seen around the town and asked to sit in on an interview with the police. Blair heads to the Franchise, a sizeable house now past its prime, which Sharpe and her mother have recently inherited and where they live in genteel poverty. Then the police arrive with a 16 year-old girl covered in bruises. She says the Sharpes kidnapped her, held her hostage for weeks, and inflicted ruthless beatings...
It's refreshing to have a mystery that's not a murder, and the general feel of the book is unsettling intrigue. It's as much about how the neighbourhood reacts to these two women from the Franchise, and there are plenty of shrewd observations, such as when Blair speaks to a waitress.
"'We were all discussing that case on Friday [says the waitress]. Imagine beating her half to death like that.''Then you think they did?' [asks Blair.]She looked puzzled. 'The paper says they did.''No, the paper reports what the girl said.'She obviously did not follow that. This was the democracy we deified.'They wouldn't print a story like that if it wasn't true. It would be as much as their life's worth. You a detective?''Part time,' Robert said.'How much an hour do you get for that?''Not nearly enough.''No, I suppose not. Haven't got a union, I suppose. You don't get your rights in this world unless you have a union.''Too true,' said Robert. 'Let me have my bill, will you?''Your check, yes." (p. 130.)
In this, there are hints of a generational divide, and an inrush of Americanisation, perhaps the result of the recent war. The book was first published in 1948 (mine is a battered copy from the following year), but there's little on the war specifically - no mention of Blair having served, for example, or that some of people's strange behaviour may be the shadow of trauma.
In fact, it's all rather lightly played, and straightforward. Blair remains convinced of the Sharpes' innocence and even falls for Marion. I was braced for some last twist or reversal that never came. It's a comic novel in many ways, with something of Wodehouse in the reactions of Blair's maiden aunt.
"A fortnight ago you would never have dreamed of putting a parcel of fish down on polished mahogany and forgetting all about it." (p. 162)
But I really felt for the Sharpes, facing prosecution and a violent response from their neighbours. I think that may be because I'm also deep in research at the moment about a real court case, the one brought 40 years ago by Mary Whitehouse against the director of the National Theatre production, The Romans in Britain - of which more anon.
And so I think the thing that really lingers from this is Marion Sharpe's sympathy at the end of the novel for the mother of her accuser, a connection felt across the gulf of the two sides.