Brat Farrar, Josephine Tey

Brat Farrar

Brat Farrar

So having reread The Franchise Affair recently, and still unable to locate my copy of The Daughter of Time, I turned to one of my other Josephine Tey books recently, Brat Farrar, but in this case, the question that I went into this reread with was wondering if it would still feel as relevant as the Franchise Affair did to me.  Because Brat is a very different kind of book, which is in my opinion one of the marvelous things about Tey’s work—there’s no “Tey formula” to them.  If you’re new to her, you’ll find that you’re never going to know what you’ll be getting.  It’s like a present.  I like presents.

So does Brat Farrar hold up?  I think thematically the larger questions of morality and the whole “ends justify the means” stuff certainly holds up just fine, and I’ll discuss those themes in a bit.  But the writing here feels somewhat more old-fashioned, although the book is still very readable—I gulped it right down, just like I did the first time I read it.  One thing I did notice this time that I apparently missed on my first reading was that the setting seems a bit off, and it took me a bit to put my finger on what the issue was.

The novel is not really anchored in any specific time that Tey points out, but it presumably takes place after WWII because there are references to people being “bombed out”.  So given its publication date (1949), one just assumes it’s set somewhere in that vicinity in time.  But it somehow feels like it’s set more interwar, and there are a few iffy timeline items as a result.  Given that the lynchpin events of the book—the disappearance and presumed suicide of Patrick Ashby following the death of his parents in a plane crash off the coast—take place some eight plus years earlier,that puts those events right smack in the middle of The Blitz.  I’ll leave it to you to work out the problem with that and just say that there’s no sign here that the war ever happened—no mention of rationing, of the post-war issues Britain faced.  It’s a little timey-wimey, to quote The Doctor.

The story itself is one of those things that seems so implausible that it’s actually believable: a young orphan named Brat Farrar is mistaken for Simon Ashby by Ashby’s cousin Alec Loding on a London street.  Loding, a down-at-heel actor, realizes that Brat bears a striking resemblance to Simon, who is due to inherit his parents’ estate in a few weeks upon his 21st birthday, and thus to Simon’s dead twin Patrick, who presumably committed suicide and whose body was never recovered from the sea.  A plot is hatched for Loding to tutor Brat in everything Ashby, for Brat to collect what would have been Patrick’s inheritance (as the older twin), and to split the money after.  Brat refuses the offer initially, but eventually gives in upon learning that part of his inheritance is Latchett’s, a stud farm.  Brat loves horses.  From there it’s a matter of convincing his “brother” and his “sisters” and his “aunt”, as well as the family solicitor, that he is indeed the missing and presumed dead Patrick Ashby.

If you’re wondering where the mystery is, well, the mystery is that Brat eventually becomes convinced that Patrick Ashby did not commit suicide, but was murdered.  This naturally puts him in a bit of a quandary, because he obviously can’t voice his suspicions to anyone because he’s supposed to be Patrick Ashby.  It’s not like he can go to the police and say “I suspect X killed me.”—to expose the truth about himself would most certainly land him in the quod.  So he needs to continue his deception, which he grows increasingly uncomfortable with, in order to unmask a killer.

It’s a pretty little ethical dilemma that takes the usual imposter trope and gives it a good shake.  Normally, we don’t get to see things from the imposter’s point-of-view in detective fiction.  We get lead up the path by them just like the great detective and assume that they are who they say they are right up until the point where the detective says “But you’re not really Old Murder Victim’s Nephew, are you?  You’re really X, impersonating the nephew in order to get his inheritance!”  But here, we know right from the get go that Brat is not Patrick Ashby.  So it’s not a matter of “is he or isn’t he?” but one of “will he get away with it or won’t he?” followed by “will he keep this up or won’t he?” and a host of other questions.  Seeing the action from his point of view allows us to develop some empathy for the character—a young man, a foundling, with no family of his own and no real prospects or talents save his amazing skill with horses, is suddenly impersonating a much-loved young man with a huge family, a trust fund, and a horse farm.  Talk about your presents.  It’s easy to understand why Brat agrees to Loding’s scam, it really is.

Plus he’s just so charming.  Tey is a whiz at building a character.  I remember the first time I read this that I wanted him to get away with it, to get the money and the farm and live happily ever after.  I began devising these complicated scenarios in my head while I was reading that would allow him to actually be Patrick Ashby so that he wouldn’t be stealing Simon’s inheritance, but taking what was rightfully his.  I was convinced there was some sort of double-double twist to the whole thing, I wanted it so badly.  And I found myself doing the exact same thing this time.  You know he can’t be Patrick, that he’s not him, but you want him to be.  Brat is really a very awesome guy for a liar and a con artist.

And his moral dilemma is tricky.  As he enters into the Ashby family situation, he feels a real affinity for the siblings and their guardian, Aunt Bee, and he comes to regret what he’s doing because he knows that if they find out the truth that the pain they experienced over Patrick’s suicide, barely suppressed for 8 years, will all come back to the surface, and stronger.  He does not want to hurt these people.  But to continue with his impersonation will hurt them financially as well as emotionally.  And when he uncovers the truth about Patrick’s death, they will be hurt even more.  So it becomes a matter of which pain, and how much, he has to inflict upon them, because no matter what, his agreeing to enter into the deception sets up a load of hurt down the road.  So he has to ask himself if it’s better to continue deceiving these nice people and letting them believe the beloved Patrick is alive while he tries to find out what happened to the real Patrick, or expose himself as a fraud, and he then has to decide whether to expose the truth about Patrick, and thus himself, or whether to allow someone else to get away with murder.  Do the ends justify the means?  Are they better off thinking Patrick is alive or knowing for certain that he’s not, and if it’s the latter, is it right that he should continue to let them think Patrick is alive while he finds and exposes the truth?

It’s all very well done: the Ashby family is so real and carefully drawn that you feel like you’ve sat down to dinner with them, and it’s their disbelief, then hope, then belief that Brat really is Patrick that helps build the suspense.  I’m trying to think of the best way to explain how the suspense in this book follows several paths at once—there’s the “will Brat get away with it?” trail and how he risks being discovered in his deception the entire way through.  Then there’s the “will Brat figure out what really happened to Patrick?” trail, closely followed by the “Will Brat realize who did this?” trail and “Now Brat is in danger!” trail, not to mention the “How will he solve his problem?” trail and the “Is this the right choice morally and ethically?” trail.  It’s very layered, and deceptively complex.

From where I’m sitting, that makes Brat Farrar utterly delicious.

A Man Lay Dead, Ngaio Marsh

A Man Lay Dead

A Man Lay Dead

In hindsight, rereading Ngaio Marsh’s A Man Lay Dead directly after Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair might have been a mistake.  Stylistically, the two do not compare: Tey is by far the better stylist, and her characters have much more depth than Marsh’s.

It’s a bit of an unfair comparison, though, for several reasons.  First, A Man Lay Dead was Marsh’s first novel, whereas Tey was well into her career with The Franchise Affair.  And they’re two distinctly different types of mysteries, and written at different points during that time known as The Golden Age—the Marsh book is over 10 years earlier, at a time when Agatha Christie was in full reign over the British Crime novel.  So it’s really very much an apples and oranges kind of comparison.  Still, it’s a fact that the far more sparse Marsh left me wanting, following on the heels of the Tey as it did.  And that’s too bad, because I really like Ngaio Marsh as a whole—she’s a great plotter with a theatrical flair to her mysteries that’s entertaining.  But again, in hindsight (that useful creature!), she’s obviously struggling to find her way in this first effort.

The plot of A Man Lay Dead is fairly simple: a country house party, a game of Murder, a real dead body instead of pretend.  There’s a side order of bolshie Russians causing trouble, several women scorned, the intrepid BYT, and, of course, the enigmatic Roderick Alleyn in his first appearance in print.  As plots go, it’s pretty standard stuff—the country house mystery had been done prior to this, and the Russians, the BYT, the tom-cat victim and his various women are all familiar types in a mystery of this era.  In as far as those things go, nothing here really stands out, and in fact, you’d find any of these elements in a Christie book from the same time period.

Where Marsh differs from Christie is that Alleyn is a professional policeman—these books are, therefore, more in the procedural vein than the private investigator line.  So whereas someone like Hercule Poirot can be all “ah, yes” and engage his little grey cells after an inscrutable conversation with someone, or Miss Marple can gently nose her way around by asking seemingly innocuous questions, Alleyn follows police procedure.  He collects evidence, he interviews the suspects, he works on alibi breaking and confirming, constructs a timeline, looks for motives, and pries into personal lives.  It’s all a bit more cut and dried, and Marsh has to labor a bit in this first book to make Alleyn interesting enough for the reader to want to spend an entire novel with him.

In that sense, it’s probably wise that she starts out with an accidental Watson for him in the person of Nigel Bathgate, a reporter who has been invited to the house party along with his cousin Charles, who ends up dead.  Nigel has an unbreakable alibi, so Alleyn can use him in places where he, as a policeman, cannot tread.  The story is told from Nigel’s point-of-view, and as he has a natural interest in what Alleyn is doing, he conveys that interest to the reader.  It works up to a point, but in later books she’d jettison Nigel in favor of a more omniscient point-of-view for the simple reason that once Alleyn’s character is established, Nigel becomes more of an encumbrance than a useful character.  But here he serves his purpose by introducing us, so to speak, to Alleyn and his methods. But it turns out that Roderick Alleyn is pretty hard to get to know.

It’s obvious this is an early book in the series because Marsh seems a bit unclear with what exactly she wants Roderick Alleyn to be—at times he’s a totally conventional policeman, at others a bit of a maverick; he is at turns both capricious and logical.  Sometimes he’s straightforward with Nigel and at other times he’s clearly leading him up the garden path.  He seems an ordinary guy doing ordinary work for Scotland Yard, but there are hints that he’s something a bit more—a vague suggestion of an aristocratic pedigree that she would never spell out even 30 books later, just hint at.

It’s very hard, in this first book, not to see the influence of both Christie and Sayers, and yet Marsh also had a third influence: the theatre.  All of her books have a whiff of theatricality about them, and many of them are set either in the theatre or concern actors.  A Man Lay Dead, with its dramatic murder (a knife in the back is quite plebian compared to some of the later methods she conjured up—one thing about Marsh was that she was rarely at a loss for an unusual means of killing someone, and she came up with some real doozies) and the later recreation of the crime, demonstrate her theatre roots most ably—reading the scene where the body is discovered, for example, I could see it as a stage piece: the gong, the staircase, the body face-down with the dagger in the back, the houseguests standing around gaping.  Enter the Great Detective, stage left.  One thing you can always do with Marsh is visualize every scene, right down to the tray clothes and the leaves on the trees.  She was also an artist, and it shows.

Her theatre experience, and she had a great deal of it, is a great plus in terms of straightforward plotting and limning out basic characters.  But none of the characters in this particular book really develops much past the two dimensional stage—it’s like she’s cast them in the book and told them to take care of developing themselves.  In later books, this doesn’t really get much better, and her seeming determination to keep Alleyn’s roots a mystery even prevents her from doing much with him.  There are exceptions—A Surfeit of Lamphreys, for example, is a great example of what she could do with characters when she felt like bothering.  But just as Christie wasn’t particularly concerned with the people in her books, but the plot, one gets the idea that Marsh is more worried about setting the scene and then filling in the gaps with the expected people.

All of this sounds hyper critical now that I’m reading back through it, and I don’t mean it to be.  While I don’t reread her books as often as others, I do like them, and some of them, like the four set in New Zealand or the ones with a theatre setting, are quite evocative.  When she’s happy and comfortable with her setting, the books seem elevated to another level.  Here, though, her discomfort with the country house setting shows, I think.  So it’s a fun book, and the solution is a bit far-fetched, but it showed the promise of someone with better books in her.

The Franchise Affair, Josephine Tey

The Franchise Affair, Josephine Tey

The Franchise Affair, Josephine Tey

As a mystery buff, I am obviously a big fan of what are known as Golden Age detective novels.  The “big three” novelists from that period are Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh–the women with the longest lists of published works and most rabid fans.  But there is a fourth British Crime Queen, and the only reason she’s not grouped with those first three that I can think of is that her career began to flourish much later than the others.  Josephine Tey’s productivity comes near the end of those years we think of as the Golden Age (roughly 1920-1950)—her first Inspector Grant novel (The Man in the Queue) debuted in 1929; Inspector Grant wouldn’t make another appearance in print for 7 years, and most of Tey’s mystery fiction appeared in the late 40’s and early 50’s.

The Franchise Affair is one of these later works.  Although it is ostensibly an Alan Grant novel, Grant is not the focus of the book, nor does he solve the crime.  That honor is given to country solicitor Robert Blair, who is just thinking of heading home one afternoon when his phone rings. Two local women are in need of legal assistance, as they have been accused of kidnapping and beating a 16 year old girl.  Blair, whose legal experience is mostly a case of drawing up wills and other routine matters, blusters a bit, but finally agrees to come to The Franchise, the big house on the outskirts of town.

There he is confronted with Marion Sharpe, her elderly, tart-tongued mother, and Inspector Grant, as well as the local inspector.  He hears the story, then meets the victim, Elizabeth “Betty” Kane, whose description of the house, its contents, the women, and their car, all tally.  The Sharpes deny ever seeing Betty Kane, let alone holding her hostage for a month.  Blair realizes the police will have difficulty proving a case against the Sharpes and seems to think the issue will die down, until a national rag gets hold of the story and blasts it all over the country.  As a result, the Sharpes become targets of abuse, Betty Kane is put on a pedestal, and Robert Blair, who is convinced that Betty is lying, determines to find out the truth before the police unearth any kind of evidence that might support her ludicrous story.

There are several things that stand out about this book.  First, it’s unusual for a crime novel to not involve a murder—one rather expects a body, after all, and here the only thing dead is the reputation of two women already viewed with some suspicion by the locals because they are not native to the town.  Second, Tey based this book on one of the most famous criminal trials in England, the Elizabeth Canning case, taking a form of the original woman’s name and the basic details and updating them into what was then a more contemporary setting.  Reading the details of Elizabeth Canning’s story years ago, I was really struck at how little things have changed in 250 years:  the press making a meal out of something and condemning people before they’ve even been tried, basic human nature, and the inherent decency of many people.  As a result, The Franchise Affair, despite being over 60 years old, stands up remarkably well as a study of human nature and the mob mentality.  Plus it’s a cracking good story, richly written, with really interesting characters.

Tey’s eye for all of this is pretty disparaging as Blair works tirelessly to find some piece of evidence that will knock the legs out from under Betty Kane’s story.  The Sharpes come in for a substantial amount of abuse from the townspeople, who start out as gawkers and end up engaging in a pretty nasty amount of vandalism and rumor-mongering.  The “newspaper” that prints Betty’s story makes no effort to verify it first, and while it does not mention the Sharpes by name, it has no qualms about printing a picture of their home and following up with numerous abusive letters written in support of Betty Kane.  It’s hard not to admire Blair, who refuses to give up and staggers on against public opinion and overwhelming odds, despite him being so out of his depth, or the Sharpes, who tire of hiding behind their walls and eventually venture into the town, heads held high.  What is remarkably difficult to grasp is why the police, once the proverbial poop hits the fan with the newspaper story, concentrate on proving the Sharpes’ guilt instead of their innocence–the press story is highly critical of the police for not bringing a case against the Sharpes, and you’d think the police would want to save some face by showing that they were right not to act.  Cynically, Tey suggests it’s more about damage control for them then a matter of guilt or innocence.  Even Blair’s legal pal Kevin points out to him that “justice is for the courts to decide.”

That may be true, but underneath the mystery here is what happens when justice lets one down.  Betty Kane is a really evil character, a nasty piece of work, and yet she manages to fool most everyone she encounters into believing she is nothing more than a young, innocent school girl who has been subjected to a traumatic sequence of events.  Her random selection of two innocent women to victimize in order to cover up her own wrong-doing could result in prison terms for them, and likely would have had Blair not been so dogged in pursuit of the truth.  And the police and the press would have been complicit in a miscarriage of justice.

There’s a lesson in all of that this is still relevant today, with our 24/7 media blitzes and the almost instantaneous dissemination of information that hasn’t been fact-checked.  I haven’t read this book for a number of years, but I found it still not only readable, but relevant.  Check it out.

A brief note: I am fully aware of leaving Margery Allingham off the list of Golden Age writers in the first paragraph.  I am not, I admit, very familiar with her books; the only one of them I’ve read I disliked so much that I never read another one.

The Mapping of Love and Death, Jacqueline Winspear

The Mapping of Love and Death

The Mapping of Love and Death

I know I’m reading these Maisie Dobbs books all out of order, but I’m just reading them as I come across them with the knowledge that I’m enjoying them so much that I’ll likely sit back down and reread all of them in order once I’ve gotten through them all.

So The Mapping of Love and Death is the 7th installment in the series, and it would appear, based on my limited evidence, to be a pivotal installment in terms of Maisie’s personal life and growth as a character.  The plot itself is engrossing—I really like a mystery where the investigator has to go back into the past in order to solve a case, and I especially like them when the mystery itself is only unearthed some years after the crime.  In this case, Maisie is contacted by The Cliftons, an American couple whose son Michael was killed during WWI.  His body has recently been discovered, along with some papers, a journal, and his equipment, and he appears to have had a liaison with an English nurse during the war.  It is this woman the Cliftons are hoping Maisie will be able to trace.  But Mr. Clifton, who is British by birth, has also seen the post mortem report and knows that Michael was not killed in action, but murdered.

This is a difficult investigation for Maisie, who needs to try and trace not only the unnamed English nurse, but also a murderer. Probing memories in people who might not want to remember is challenging, not only for Maisie the investigator but for Maisie the former nurse.  Michael was a cartographer during the war, and as Maisie weaves her way through various witnesses who had some knowledge of the cartography units, well. The reader gets an idea of just how difficult the task is: there is every chance that someone who might have been able to help her is dead, there are private nursing units as well as those sanctioned by the military, and since the men in Michael’s unit were all killed, the men who knew him best under those particular circumstances are unable to speak.  And when the Cliftons are attacked in their hotel room soon after meeting with Maisie, and when Maisie is later robbed of her document case, things become even less clear: is this a family matter or a war matter?

As a mystery, this is a solid enough effort—all of the major players are identified fairly early on, and it’s really more a matter of why Clifton was murdered than who murdered him; I had no issue figuring it out fairly early.  But the story is none the less compelling for that, and I was quickly caught up in his wartime romance, which parallels a new one for Maisie that readers still catching up with this series may be surprised by.  Then there are the changes in Maisie’s personal life as well—her mentor, Maurice, is ill, and her contact at Scotland Yard has been replaced by a less cooperative man.

I find the period details in these books to be spot on, and Winspear is great at capturing the atmosphere of London between the wars.  There is a major factual error right at the very beginning of the story that I’m not sure most people would catch, and as it has absolutely no bearing on the case, it wasn’t enough to actually put me off.  And I really enjoyed learning more about cartography and the importance of cartographers during the war–Winspear keeps the technical details light, but she offers just enough information to make me want to learn more about their roles in WWI.

What I think Winspear does really well in these books, though, is the characters.  Maisie is both realistic and continually evolving, and she’s an interesting character for the time period she exists in—a woman in what was typically a man’s profession then.  She’s not an amateur sleuth, but a professional inquiry agent, and one who runs her own business to boot.  For her time period, she’s very cutting edge, and it’s interesting to watch her make her way through the various barriers that existed to women back then, especially women who are not wealthy—comparing her to Lady Ella, who used her husband’s wealth to start a private nursing unit during the war, makes you realize just how difficult her path has been. I think a lot of writers might have been tempted to overplay this part, too, because Maisie isn’t just a woman earning her way in a man’s world, but a woman who’s pulling herself upward both financially and socially.  Winspear keeps her firmly balanced, though, and avoids letting things get either twee or unrealistic.  Instead, Maisie becomes a symbol of a time period of rapid social changes, but in a quiet, workmanlike way.  Maisie is never hysterical.  I like that in a character.

The only real issue I had with this book was that the end was tied up a little too neatly—in a case with roots firmly entrenched so far in the past, it seems a little much that Maisie would be able to get all of her questions satisfactorily answered, and there is also a final event that has no connection to the actual case at hand that she feels compelled to push for an answer to, even though it’s not only nosey of her but overbearing.  It felt like Winspear had gone perhaps one step too far in neatening everything up, and it wasn’t necessary.  It bugged me enough that I feel I have to mention it, although it happens so late in the book that I can’t mention what it is without completely spoiling the ending.

Maisie receives some life-altering news at the end as well that should allow the author to take her in even more interesting directions as she continues to explore her character.  I need to go back and read the earlier books in the series first, but I’m looking forward to spending time not only in Maisie’s past, but with her future as well.

 

On a more personal note: given the incident in Boston yesterday, I nearly pulled this post out of respect for the situation.  And then I remembered that mystery novels provide us with a reminder that good and justice always triumph. And in this case, the wheels of justice ground slowly, but in the end, justice won.  It’s an idea worth keeping in mind as we make our way through the upcoming days and weeks.  –donna

Elegy for Eddie, Jacqueline Winspear

Elegy for Eddie, Jacqueline Winspear

Elegy for Eddie, Jacqueline Winspear

Among the mystery series recommended to me a few months back when I was writing about my interest in Between the Wars fiction was Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books.  Kindle recently had Elegy for Eddie at a reduced price, and investigations suggested that new readers could easily pick up with this book and not feel lost—which turned out to be true, incidentally.

I want to thank those of you who recommended these books—I really liked Maisie and her various cohorts, so much so that I suspect I’ll be going back and reading the entire series.

So Elegy for Eddie involves Maisie looking into the death of Eddie, an autistic horse whisperer she’s known since childhood.  Eddie’s death at a local paper factory seems to be an accident, but the costermongers who knew him insist that there’s something fishy about it and ask Maisie to investigate.  She soon finds that Eddie was doing more than running errands and was inadvertently tangled up in a plot involving a number of powerful men.  Meanwhile, she’s also finding her relationship with James to be suffocating and shifting so quickly that it’s hard to find her balance in it.

I’m going to raise a few eyebrows here and invoke a sacred name (at least to me): Dorothy L. Sayers.  The further I read into this book, the more the comparison came to my mind.  The time frame is nearly identical, and while Winspear is not the stylist Sayers was, she’s also not writing in the time period as Sayers was.  People often talk about how authentic Sayers books feel—well, they were authentic because they were written in the moment, and there’s something about a genuine 20’s and 30’s British voice that is pretty difficult for a contemporary writer to emulate.  For me, finding a writer who is able to somehow capture that element to a point where it’s hard to tell that the book isn’t period is nigh on impossible.  Winspear comes pretty darned close, though.  And Maisie reminds me very much of Harriet Vane in several ways: her logical approach to her work, her need to keep herself intact in her relationship with James and the struggle to find a way to balance all of that, and her adjustment to living in a completely different class than she was born into are all problems Harriet faces, as did any woman who chose to strike out independently in a time when that was still more a novelty than it should have been.

As a mystery novel, this has plenty to cheer about too—it not only reads like an authentic period piece, it’s written and structured much like a mid-thirties Golden Age detective novel—whiffs of political intrigue, suspects across a variety of social classes, clues hidden not just by verbal sleight of hand, but also in character attitudes, and in the end, a good chunk of moral ambiguity for Maisie.  These were complex times for people, and Winspear captures that complexity through the various characters and the situations they find themselves in.  It’s not perfectly done–sometimes it feels a little forced, like she’s trying too hard to get it just right.  But I found those moments few and far between and easily overlooked.

If you’re a fan of Sayers, you should check out Maisie Dobbs, but I will offer a caveat: no one can duplicate Sayers’ brilliance, so don’t expect that.  But this is the same type of mystery, one that not only offers an intriguing puzzle, but also looks at the political and social changes that were rapidly advancing at the time.  In other words, there’s some meat on the bones—and plenty to chew on.