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Book Review: The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey

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On the recommendations of a commenter on my post on the glory days of the English detective novel, I’ve just read Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair (1948).

It has got a lot to recommend it, perhaps most of all its evocative portrait of a disappearing world (easy to see why this might have been popular just after the war). Its finest characterisation is of the small market town of Milford, “where invitations to dinner are still written by hand and sent through the post”.

The central character is Robert Blair, a stolid solicitor who went into the family firm, following an entirely conventional path, who is feeling the first stirrings of what we might call today a mid-life crisis.

The minor characters too are well-drawn. I particularly liked the severe office secretary.

“Miss Tuff was a war-time product; the first woman who had ever sat at a desk in a respectable solicitors’ in Milford. A whole revolution Miss Tuff was in her single gawky thin earnest person.”

Plotting too is fine; this is an interesting variation on the standard form: not a “who-dunnit”, but a “can we prove they didn’t do it”, after a mother and daughter, living alone in an isolated, large but run-down country home, are accused of kidnapping and holding a teenager in an attempt to force her to be their maid. (A new solution to the “servant problem”.) She, Robert is convinced, is simply covering up a sexual escapade, but can he prove it?

But, and it is a very big but, I found the politics of this novel impossible nasty – going further than even today’s Daily Mail would dare. The explanation for the girl’s behaviour is “bad blood”. Her mother was a wanton woman, and so, even though she was adopted at a young age and brought up with all possible advantages, is the girl. She can only be expected to lie, cheat, steal and break all society’s sexual rules.

I know, from my own family, that a fervent, nasty belief in “bad blood” was very prevalent in this era, so perhaps I should forgive this as of its time. Yet the theme is so central to the novel I’m unable to do so.

So I’m afraid I decline to include Tey in my list of “queens”, and I won’t be reading any more of her novels.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • Lynne McGrath

    Just read Ms. Natalie Bennett’s review of Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair. While Ms. Bennett is entitled to her opinion, I’d recommend her reading Tey’s Brat Farrar or the Daughter of Time before writing off the author entirely.

  • Tony v

    This review seems pretty well-judged to me. I first read The Francise affair many years ago and liked it. On re-reading it recently, however, the deeply pervasive class structure which is present on every page was something I found offensive. In Tey’s world the upper middle-classes have all the taste and judgement and the lower orders are either laughable, deferential or bad. And all the characters are stock without complexity or diversity. This is strictly nostalgia for a (largely imagined) pre-war social system which probably never existed as Tey would have wished it and has now, thankfully, gone for ever. One expects the central characters to keep saying things like “It’s so hard to find good servants these days”. A good book spoiled by class prejudice.