“The Franchise Affair” by Josephine Tey (published by Penguin Books)

Monstrous lie turns town against ‘odd’ women

Seemingly a fairly straightforward crime book, this one is actually deeper on a couple of levels, including that it is based on a true case in 1753 and it slips in some social commentary on media responsibility and accountability, and the way communities take “justice” into their own hands, matters probably as pertinent today as they were in 1948 when the novel was published.
4. November 2023 6:08

Josephine Tey based her tale on the 18th-century case of Elizabeth Canning, an 18-year-old maidservant who disappeared on January 1, 1753, then returned to her mother’s house, emaciated and in a deplorable state, one month later. She told authorities of being kidnapped. Several arrests were made and English writer and magistrate Henry Fielding, author of “Tom Jones”, took her side. The accused were convicted but the trial judge, not being satisfied with the verdict, began his own investigation. Canning was convicted of perjury and transported to North America, where she lived the rest of her life. The case continued to arouse controversy and the mystery of her disappearance remains unsolved.

In “The Franchise Affair”, Canning becomes 15-year-old Betty Kane and the task of sleuth falls upon Robert Blair, a respected solicitor in a respected family law firm in the quiet country town of Milton. He’s about to knock off from a slow day when he is phoned by a panicked Marion Sharpe to come out and defend her and her mother because the local police and Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard have turned up. They are accused of abducting Kane, constantly beating her and holding her prisoner in an attic for a month when she refused to be their maid.

The Sharpes live in The Franchise,  a rather imposing but ramshackle and gloomy house behind a high wall and an iron gate on the outskirts of town. The women were already viewed with suspicion, keeping to themselves and being regarded as odd by the locals in the little market town, who are suspicious of people they don’t know or understand.

They’re “outsiders”, for one thing, and have a reputation for being rude. The conservative townies think Marion Sharpe looks like a gypsy with her dark hair, browned skin and colourful scarves. Perhaps, it’s whispered, they really are witches… so it’s easy to believe they could be kidnappers and abusers. The mother has an acerbic tongue that matches her name but she has an equally sharp eye for spotting a winning racehorse.The police hold no fears for her.

Blair is used to drawing up wills, conveyancing, investments and other mundane jobs, and a criminal affair is far from his usual remit. However, the women’s appeal to him comes at a time when he’s been feeling that his life living with Aunt Min is rather unexciting, so off he goes to help. He becomes rather taken with the Sharpe women and their sensible, forthright manner, and he distrusts Kane’s story of being picked up by them at a bus stop as it was getting dark and starting to rain, then locked up for a month before escaping. Somehow, though, she’s able to describe accurately to the police her “prison” at The Franchise — the attic room with its round cracked window, the kitchen, the circular driveway and the old trunks. Despite this, the police have doubts about making an arrest, and hold off until solid evidence arises.

Still, Grant remarks, “There is no end to the extravagances of human conduct.”

Thus begins Blair’s painstaking search for clues to prove his clients’ innocence and reveal Kane as more of  a cunning minx than the butter-wouldn’t-melt figure she presents to police and, later, to judge and jurors. The townsfolk mostly find it easy to believe her, particularly when the schoolgirl’s “very calm, ordinary, well-spoken-of” youthful appearance and clothes make even sober men think of “forget-me-nots and wood-smoke and bluebells and summer distances”.

“The Franchise Affair” is nicely paced.  The first half is very much about Blair’s inability to find the holes in Kane’s story. Though he learns some surprising facts about her, he’s frustrated there is no real breakthrough. The second half has more tension; a race against time as the Sharpes find themselves arrested and the evidence appears to be firmly stacked against them.

Beyond the mechanics of the investigation lies a well-crafted portrayal of how the media and a community react to a scandal in their midst, jumping to conclusions. The townsfolk assume the girl is innocent because she simply looks that way and because she was orphaned during the war, her parents bombed. The Sharpes must be wrong-doers because they live in a large house, and hence are wealthy, though in fact it was an inheritance and they are just making do.

Tey has been accused by readers of letting her prejudices show and clearly not having much time for such people as the Sharpes. Blair refers to a suggestion “that the humble victim has less pull with the police than the wicked rich”. And the author is disapproving of the way the media feed people’s prejudices. One newspaper, the tabloid “Ack-Emma” (meaning “a.m.”, or “in the morning”), is described as “… the latest representative of the tabloid newspaper to enter British journalism from the West. It was run on the principle that two thousand pounds for damages is a cheap price to pay for sales worth half a million”. Readers will decide.

The “Ack-Emma”s sensational headlines are instrumental in whipping up public animosity against the Sharpes. The paper takes Kane’s unlikely story at face value, publishes a picture of The Franchise, which then becomes a target for vigilantes, and prints abusive letters.

Blair/Tey bemoans this new style of reporting, saying time was when newspapers had old principles and could be relied upon to exercise sound judgement about their contents. Now, sales have boomed and “in any suburban railway station seven out of ten people bound for work in the morning” were reading its pages.

Tey entertains. Blair is a lifelong bachelor with a peaceful life. He has tea and biscuits brought each day to his desk on a lacquered tray covered with a cloth. He can clock off work after the post has gone at 3.45pm, just in time for golf before dinner. He’s waited on hand and foot by Aunt Lin. She’s “a solid little figure with the short neck and round pink face and iron-grey hair that frizzed out from large hairpins”. She is perfectly content with a life that revolves around recipes, church bazaars and film star gossip gleaned from magazines.

But Aunt Lin isn’t too keen on her nephew taking on the Sharpes’ case because the people at The Franchise “aren’t the kind of people I naturally take to”. Still, she is one of the few in Milton who doesn’t let appearances get in the way of a desire for justice.

But Kane is falling for Marion Sharpe romantically (the final page of the book is a neat ending).

Josephine Tey presents an intriguing figure in her mannish back-cover photo, wearing a shirt, tie and jacket with a short hairstyle. One suspects she must be in trousers too. Born Elizabeth MacKintosh in Inverness, Scotland, in 1896, her first novel, “The Man in the Queue”, was a success in 1929. This, three other novels and 19 plays were all written using a male pseudonym, Gordon Daviot. She wrote six mystery novels featuring Inspector Grant but his role here is minor. “The Franchise Affair” was filmed very well in 1950. Two of her other books were also filmed and her works have often been dramatised for radio and TV. She was apparently shy, a bit of a mystery herself, and never married. Tey died in London in 1952 aged 55 years.

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