“Brat Farrar” by Josephine Tey (published by Penguin Books)

A suicide reappears, or does he?

That’s a fairly terrible title for a book –“Brat Farrar” – but, as someone somewhere once said, you can’t judge a book by its cover, and no doubt this applies equally to titles too. Still, this one came out in 1949, and it’s a bit late to argue about it now. It might be thought, though, that “Return From the Dead” or something dramatic like that could have grabbed a few more thrill-seeking readers.
12. November 2023 6:35

This re-release quickly follows the latest reappearance of Josephine Tey’s “The Franchise Affair” from 1948, and she has earned her place among those crime writers who haven’t died on the shelves. Here’s another mystery to relish, and it opens up with some scene-setting badinage around the Ashby family dining table, to introduce the dramatis personae.

We meet the single Aunt Bee (Beatrice) and most importantly her nephew Simon who is 20 with a coming-of-age party imminent, when he will inherit his mother’s fortune, especially their home Latchetts, which is a stud and an estate of three farms in the village of Clare in a high valley in the English countryside. Also at the table are his sisters, Eleanor, a year or so younger than Simon, and identical twins Ruth and Jane, nine-going-on-ten.

Their parents, Bill and Nora Ashby, were killed in a plane crash, flying from Paris to London eight years ago, and for Bee it has been eight years of contriving, conserving and planning to look after the four of them. But in six weeks her stewardship will end when Simon will inherit and their lean years will be over. Her brother Bill’s death meant near-poverty but they never borrowed on the strength of the wealth to come, and kept solvent.

It’s not the only tragedy in the family because after the parents’ deaths, Patrick, the elder twin brother of Simon, disappeared at age 13. A body was found on Castleton beach but it had been months in the water and it wasn’t possible even to tell the sex. Bee has a note that he left: “I’m sorry but I can’t bear it any longer. Don’t be angry with me. Patrick.”

It is asumed that either he jumped off the cliff or swam out to sea until he couldn’t come back, unable to bear the weight of Latchetts on his shoulders now that his parents had gone. A suicide, and Simon became the heir. The big party looms, with a dinner for intimates and a dance for everyone in the barn.

Josephine Tey

Preliminaries established, Tey introduces the conniving Alec Loding, a second-rate actor from Clare who is a relative of the rector and knows all about the Ashbys, and secondly Brat Farrar, that odd name which is in fact a person. Loding did a double-take one day in London when he saw the young man in the street and was struck by his uncanny Ashby looks.

Being the impecunious fellow he was, Loding immediately hatched a scheme to pass off Farrar as Patrick, by claiming he had run away rather than died. “Patrick” would thus disinherit Simon, then give the hapless Loding a secret weekly allowance.

The plotter introduced himself to the boy and took him to lunch, discovering that he too was scratching aound for his next penny. But initially Farrar saw the scheme as too criminal, too dangerous. Loding was persuasive: “No one with your Ashby looks could be a double-crosser. The Ashbys are monsters of rectitude.” And Farrar loved horses, so was drawn to Latchetts, where they bred, sold and trained them. He eventually agreed to be “Patrick”.

That name? The boy was a foundling from an orphanage. There, Matron used a pin in a telephone directory and came up with the name Farrell. The orphan had arrived on the doorstep on St Bartholomew’s Day, and so his first name became Bart. The older orphans, in the cruel manner of children, changed Bart to Brat. Farrar came when the boy started adventuring in foreign lands and was assisting the cook in the galley of a tramp ship, where the skipper mistakenly read Farrell for Farrar.

So he fell in with Loding’s plot, and now Tey’s story can really get under way. Under Loding’s coaching about the family, will “Patrick”, presumed dead for eight years, pass muster when lawyers investigate his missing years? One bit of luck: the family dentist was “blown to dust” (presumably in the war) and there are no records to compare.

How does “Patrick” explain his long absence? Why didn’t he write? If he manages to convince, will he be welcomed back? Will the prodigal get cold feet? Further, how will Simon react to the resurrection of a twin brother and the loss of a fortune? Will he hate? Although twins, they were not identical,  but “once you really looked at him [Patrick] the startling resemblance vanished, and only the family likeness remained”, according to Loding. Patrick’s disappearance is rarely mentioned after his reappearance, rather there is a polite evasion of the subject. That’s the English way, it seems.

Now, Brat Farrar, and Josephine Tey, are walking a tight-rope where each must convince or fall flat – Farrar with the family/Tey with the reader. How will it transpire? Getting involved in the mystery, one possible ending suggested itself to this reader – will “Patrick” and Loding succeed in their risky subterfuge, and then everything will fall apart when the real Patrick turns out to be alive and shows up at the end? That could happen.

Another possibility arose as the pages turned. “Patrick”/Brat is surprised by Simon’s calm acceptance that he will now be usurped as heir. Does it mean that Simon knows something no one else does – for instance that Patrick never committed suicide? The word murder is raised. Cain and Abel? Reading on will tell, and that’s the fun, trying to foretell the author.

Some interesting side points arise. When Loding was trying to convince Farrar to impersonate Patrick, and Farrar didn’t believe he would be able to pull it off, Loding told him: “It is not so long since a famous general whose face was a household word… was impersonated quite successfully by an actor in broad daylight and in full view of the multitude.”

“Brat Farrar” was published in 1949, remember, and Loding’s comment is most probably a reference to Meyrick Edward Clifton James, an actor and soldier whose greatest role was the impersonation of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery in World War II. The ruse was code-named Operation Copperhead and was part of a wider British intelligence campaign of deception that aimed to divert German troops from Northern France by convincing the Nazis that an Allied invasion of Southern France would precede a northern invasion.

Clifton James wrote a book about it called “I Was Monty’s Double” in 1954, and it was filmed with the same title in 1958 starring John Mills.

As remarked when The Budapest Times featured Tey’s book “The Franchise Affair” just recently, the photo of the author on the back cover shows an androgynous lady with a distinctly masculine look: short hair, jacket, shirt and tie (and surely wearing trousers beneath). “Brat Farrar” has the same photo. Strange then, that this presumably liberated woman falls into the cliché of clearly casting Loding as a homosexual just because he is an actor (but without explicitly saying so). When Loding spotted Farrar in the street he made a double proposition: to impersonate Patrick, and if he would like to come up to Loding’s place and see his etchings, well, that would be nice too. Films of the time often depicted theatrical people in a stereotypical, overly camp way. Anyway, Farrar wasn’t that way inclined.

Still, back to the story, It becomes cat and mouse between Simon and “Patrick”. It’s certain to blow up in someone’s face, but whose?

(Latchetts being a stud, and Tey displaying quite a lot of informed knowledge about horses, perhaps she is actually wearing jodhpurs in that cover photo. It’s a thought.)

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