The Franchise Affair: A Mystery Without a Corpse
A masterful and chilling mystery (named by the Crime Writers’ Association in 1990 as one of the ‘Top One Hundred Crime Novels of All Time’) that may, or may not, have been based on real events, The Franchise Affair is one of Josephine Tey’s finest – but there’s something not quite right about it: there isn’t a body!
Writing in the Winter 2001/Spring 2002 edition of the Folio Magazine, Margaret Yorke, winner of the 1999 Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for her outstanding contribution to the genre and author of many books including the Patrick Grant series, pays her respects to one of the standout examples of the Golden Age of fiction.
What makes The Franchise Affair memorable as a detective novel is that there is no bloodied, poisoned or strangled corpse at its centre. It is not a whodunit, with a cast of suspects and clues, as was fashionable at the time when it was written. The murder is the character assassination of two women, involving the destruction of their reputations. Their alleged victim convinces the police and the public that they have abducted her; what follows is the pursuit of truth and the search for justice.
The Franchise is a large, isolated house, some miles from the small town of Milford, fenced off from view behind high walls and impenetrable gates that are kept closed. Its occupants are Marion Sharpe – no pretty young thing but a woman of forty, swarthy in appearance – and her tart-tongued mother. The two, who have inherited the house, have not made a niche for themselves in the community when they call upon Robert Blair, a staid solicitor, for help.
The novel was first published in 1948, three years after the Second World War ended, but Josephine Tey has kept references to shortages and wartime service to the minimum, perhaps to reduce the chance of its dating, though she does mention the blitz on London. We learn that Robert Blair has done firewatch duty but he appears not to have been in the Forces; though not young, he was not too old. Was he unfit? He seems healthy enough, accepting the peaceful routine of his days when, having drunk the cup of tea brought to his desk by Miss Tuff, he can often leave the office after the post has gone at 3.45pm, in time for a round of golf before dinner. He lives with his devoted Aunt Lin in comfortable bachelorhood, and is feeling a little bored with his predictable existence when the catalyst of accusations against the Sharpes jolts him into acting to defend them.
There is a restfulness in reading about calmer times when people could safely leave their houses unlocked in places like Milford if they went out. The book has a nostalgic flavour; life was more leisurely then, but gossip, as now, was rife and powerful and so was the might of the tabloid press. Today, in such a town, theft, drug offences, vandalism and violence would not be unknown.
Robert is about to leave the office when the telephone rings. Marion Sharpe tells him that detectives from Scotland Yard are at The Franchise; she and her mother are suspected of having kidnapped Betty Kane, a schoolgirl, held her captive, starved and beaten her, all with the aim of turning her into their servant. Robert does not handle criminal cases. Reluctant to take on this one, and ill-equipped to do so, he suggests that the Sharpes approach his colleague, Benjamin Carley, who is more versed in these matters, but Marion’s persistence finally appeals to his chivalrous nature, and here we are with our gallant, if rather dull hero, a man of principle who believes in retribution.
Betty Kane, the Sharpes’ accuser, is able to describe the interior of the house, some of its furnishings, and the view from the attic room where she alleges that she was incarcerated. She has been staying for part of her school holidays with an aunt in Mainshill, a suburb of Larborough. The town is some twenty miles from Milford and on the cross-country bus route from Aylesbury, where she lives with guardians who have cared for her since her parents were killed in a bombing raid. She was waiting, a month ago, for the bus to take her back to Aylesbury when a car containing an older and a younger woman pulled up and offered her a lift to overtake the bus, which she had missed. Mrs and Miss Sharpe, she asserted, had imprisoned her. She could even describe particular marks on their car. Her guardians had received a card purporting to come from Betty, saying that she was extending her visit to her aunt; when she did not come home in time for the new school term, supposing her to be playing truant, they wrote to her aunt; telephones were not universal then and the mail was reliable. She had been reported missing only shortly before she came home in a dishevelled, distressed state, bruised and battered.
Robert is quickly convinced of the innocence of his clients, but though there is only circumstantial evidence against them, proving it will be difficult. He consults an old school friend, Kevin Macdermott, now a successful criminal barrister, who has read of the case in a tabloid newspaper that has been tipped off about it. Public ire has been roused; the Sharpes are hounded. Kevin irritates Robert by saying he could make a good case for either side, but wonders where, if she was not at The Franchise, Betty spent the missing weeks. He is surprised that the police have not already arrested the Sharpes but remarks that perhaps they have recollected the ‘parallel case, where everyone believed the girl’s heart-rending story and were very thoroughly led up the garden’.
Robert asks what this was, and his friend replies that it happened in seventeen-something. This is a reference to the disappearance of Elizabeth Canning, which probably inspired Josephine Tey to write The Franchise Affair, but the book is not, as has been alleged, directly based on it.
‘The nature of alibis has not changed much in two centuries,’ Kevin goes on, helps himself to some whisky and adds that he wonders what Betty was doing during the month when she declared that she was a captive that made this invention necessary. Thus prompted, and strengthened in his own conviction that justice must be done and the innocent cleared by Kevin’s view that a criminal ‘is a person who makes the satisfaction of his own immediate personal wants the mainspring of his life’, Robert sets off to find out. Whether or not he succeeds forms the rest of the story.
The Franchise Affair and two other Josephine novels – Brat Farrar and The Singing Sands – are available in Folio editions.