THE COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION: Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair

Has it really been nearly eight years since I last read Josephine Tey? She seems to stir up a hornet’s nest of opinion whenever one of her books comes up. All I know is that I love a good academic mystery, and someone who knew that recommended Miss Pym Disposes (1946). Beautifully written, funny, dark, and sad, the book was a revelation, and you would think that it would lead me into a deep forage of Tey’s work.  

It turns out, however, that Ms. Tey was not a prolific crime novelist – she only has eight mysteries to her credit, spending far more of her time as a dramatist – and she never wrote the same book twice. I frankly had little interest in perhaps her most famous novel, The Daughter of Time, and even that one isn’t universally loved. I knew that A Shilling for Candles was adapted into the film Young and Innocent, a film I like very much – except for the fact that Hitchcock, who didn’t much like whodunits, removed the novel’s puzzle element and made many other wholesale changes.  I learned that she had a series sleuth, the charming Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant, who featured in all but two of her books. Eventually, I picked up one of these, To Love and Be Wise, and a non-series novel, Brat Ferrar, laid them aside and forgot about them. 

Fortunately, my Book Club, which has been known to swoop in for the rescue many a time, recently came to the conclusion that we needed a spot of Tey in our reading list! In a decision-making process that was unbelievably easy (this is Book Club, after all), we plumped on The Franchise Affair, the 1948 novel that followed Miss Pym. Although Inspector Grant does appear in this one, it is in a cameo so small that it makes Miss Marple’s appearance in The Moving Finger seem to dominate that book! In fact, Grant, rather than being the sleuth d’histoire here, ends up being one of the more unwilling antagonists. 

The hero of Franchise is Robert Blair, the senior partner of a small law firm in the British town of Milford. As she did with Miss Pym, Tey presents with beautiful, economical language the portrait of a man whose life is somehow amiss, a respectable lawyer who embraces his well-ordered existence but burns with an undefined need for something more:

Until the last year or so, he had found no fault with certainty or passivity. He had never wanted any other life, but this: this quiet, friendly life in the place where he has grown up. He still did not want any other. But once or twice lately, an odd alien thought had crossed his mind; irrelevant, and unbidden. As nearly as it could be put into words, it was: ‘This is all you are ever going to have.’”

Thus, when the telephone rings as he is about to leave the office, Blair is ripe for the plucking. The call is from a woman named Marion Sharpe who lives with her elderly mother in a rather remote house called The Franchise. She is in immediate need of support and advice over a criminal matter. Blair, who is not a criminal lawyer, tries to push her off to another firm, but Marion is adamant: “I don’t want a criminal lawyer. I want a friend. Someone who will stand by me and see that I am not put-upon . . . someone of my own sort.” And so, reluctantly, Blair goes to The Franchise, where he is plunged into a strange problem and where his growing feelings for Marion Sharpe will threaten the “quiet, friendly life” about which he has been feeling so ambivalent.

As the facts of the Franchise affair unfold, Tey does a fine job of stirring up our own ambivalence about who is innocent and who is guilty. A young schoolgirl named Betty Kane has accused the Sharpes of bizarrely imprisoning her in their attic for a month, beating and starving her as they pressure her to become their maid. On the one hand, Betty has led a blameless life and is able to provide details of the house and its inhabitants that nobody could have known unless they had actually explored the place. And yet, the Sharpes seem undeniably respectable and believably incredulous of the girl’s story.

At first, Scotland Yard (represented in these early scenes by Alan Grant) is reticent about acting on the girl’s accusations, even though they seem to believe her. But then Betty’s foster brother delivers the story to a tabloid newspaper, and both the police and Blair are forced to act to protect the interests of the opposing sides they represent. Here we get a powerful indictment of the tabloid press, that foul institution that continues to plague British society to this day by feeding the human need to feel superior to those who are ostensibly better off: 

From its poster–simplicity opening . . . to its final fanfare of sobs, it was of its kind a small masterpiece. It did perfectly what it set out to do. And that was to appeal to the greatest number of readers with one and the same story. To those who wanted sex-interest it offered the girl’s lack of clothes, to the sentimentalist her youth and charm, to the partisan her helpless condition, to the sadist the details of her beatings, to the sufferer from class-hatred a description of the big white house behind its high walls, and to the warm-hearted British public in general the impression that the police had been, if not ‘nobbled,’ then at least lax, and that Right had not been Done.”

As Robert finds himself increasingly drawn to Marion, the reader’s sympathies similarly align with mother and daughter, even as the feelings of the village (and newspaper readers throughout England) embrace the sweet, simple demeanor of the young accuser. The masses embrace Betty’s story because, despite its outrageousness, it is a real “David vs. Goliath” story of one of their own kind taking on members of the upper class, who feel their right to toy with a working-class girl however they see fit. That the Sharpes aren’t even rich, or that nobody really knows who they or Betty Kane are, doesn’t matter.

The middle section of the novel focuses on the press milking the story for all its worth and Milford’s increasingly angry and violent response to the case. As lines are drawn, a small cadre of supporters of the Sharpes do their best to protect these women even as they search for some sliver of evidence to turn the tide of public outrage in their favor. It’s a wonderful lot of characters who side with Blair and Marion, including Robert’s idealistic junior partner Nevil Bennet, a car mechanic named Stanley Peters, Robert’s barrister friend, sort of a British Perry Mason named Kevin MacDermott, and even Robert’s dotty cousin, Aunt Lin, whose climactic prayers for Blair’s professional success actually seem to turn the tide. 

It all culminates in a short, sharp trial sequence. Each witness is a delight of characterization, and even in these final moments Tey wrings out a great deal of humor. I was relieved after having read Miss Pym to note that the author isn’t averse to providing a satisfying ending that is also a happy one. The case is resolved, and Blair is dislodged from the pleasant rut his life has been: his role as amateur detective has taught him to seize opportunity wherever he can, including those that might move him outside the safety of his provincial existence and into a life more uncertain and joyful. 

The Franchise Affair has been adapted several times to film, television and radio. I watched the 1951 movie starring husband-and-wife Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray as Robert and Marion. It was fascinating to see how a film could remain scrupulously faithful to its source material and still manage to suck out the wit and interest in nearly every moment. About the only liveliness is provided by future star Kenneth More as the garage mechanic. I also watched the first ten minutes of the second TV adaptation, a 1988 multi-parter starring Patrick Malahide as Robert Blair, before realizing that maybe I’ve had enough of this story for the moment. Malahide is much more charming than Denison, Alex Jennings is spicy as Nevil (a role cut from the ’51 film), and we learn a lot more about Robert’s inner life. This is, after all, late 80’s BBC, and it seems willing to visually adapt every moment from the novel and more. I left it just as Robert entered The Franchise, and even the house seemed more suitably adapted here than the blandly charming country mansion of the earlier film. 

I still have those copies of Brat Ferrar and To Love and Be Wise, but over at The Invisible Event (where JJ also loved the book) opinions by readers were divided on both these titles. Given how little Tey actually wrote in the genre, she seems like an author you don’t need to sink your teeth into and can still manage to complete over the coming years. Still, after the fine examples of Pym and Franchise, I do look forward to more. 

21 thoughts on “THE COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION: Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair

    • Honestly, I think it’s an Anglo vs. American thing: if you look at the reviews of the film posted on Wikipedia, the New York Times called it boring while the British subscription service Sky Cinema loved it.


        • One doesn’t have to subscribe to broad national generalizations to notice that *some* responses to *some* cultural artifacts seem to vary according to location. In my own field of study, musical theater, there are many instances of musicals or operettas that thrived in the West End but bombed on Broadway, and the other way around too. Which doesn’t mean that nobody liked them in the “wrong” country, but not enough to pay production expenses. It’s an interesting and complicated topic, what works in one country and not as much in another. I would imagine there are many popular Italian movies that are not considered exportable to an international audience.

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          • Musical theater has been a major part of my life since I was a babe. I’ve produced and/or directed around 75 productions and seen five times that many as an audience member. On my first trip to England, I saw Guys and Dolls and Starlight Express and started to wonder if the English didn’t know how to handle musical theater. Then I saw the London production of Les Miserables and fell in love with it. I know that Maria Friedman has made certain Sondheim shows work in England that never succeeded in America. All I meant about the Franchise movie was that I found it lifeless, with fine actors turning in wooden performances – and yet I wonder if this was a “style” that some British moviegoers prefer over the louder, swifter-paced U.S. thrillers.


            • My boyfriend from high school majored in musical theater at university and spent a semester in London, where he saw Les Miserables and fell in love with it. He brought home the album from the London production and I was forbidden to play it lest I scratch it, lol.

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            • You and I could have a spirited conversation one day about what Maria Friedman has done to Sondheim, but fortunately that’s off topic here, so we never have to get into it.

              Certainly there are issues of taste that have separated the two countries (though gradually evened out over recent decades, what with mass communication and all), even of class — how it’s proper to communicate vs. that vulgar American directness. More than one academic colleague, getting a book or article published through a British press, has told me about copy-editors wanting to remove what they saw as an excess of directness or aggressiveness even in impersonal discussion, e.g. introducing more passive voice (whereas we’re taught to avoid it).

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  1. I’m delighted to see someone writing about The Franchise Affair. I think it’s a near-masterpiece within its modest aims, and one thing Tey always had was a flair for vivid characterization (even among the “good” characters) without seeming to work at it. I’ve never seen any adaptation of it, and the BBC one sounds like something I ought to search out, if that’s even possible.

    I find Brat Farrar equally fine, but it’s unconventional in structure — those expecting suspense all through are going to be disappointed, but the characters are if anything even more endearing, and so is the milieu and atmosphere. To Love and Be Wise is another matter — that’s an “every man for himself” situation in terms of whether one finds it appealing, for several reasons none of which I should discuss here. But I always enjoy re-encountering Tey (with a couple of exceptions).

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    • I’m happy to hear positive feedback for both of the titles in my possession. So far, Tey’s writing style is so enjoyable that I might
      Even like all the stuff about horses in BRAT FARRAR!

      I don’t know where you live, but I found both the film and the series on YouTube.


      • Horses matter not at all to me, but the talk about them has never impeded my enjoyment of Brat Farrar.

        I’m in Delaware. And yes, both the film and the series (and also a 1970 BBC radio adaptation) are on YouTube. I don’t know why I never think to look there for this sort of thing. I’ll be exploring all that very soon.

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        • BRAT FARRAR was way too horsey for me. Hammer had the rights for years but by the time it was filmed, as PARANOIAC, so little was left of the original (it’s a Tichborne Claimant variant) that no credit for Tey was required.

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  2. The only books by Tey I haven’t read multiple times are The Daughter of Time and Miss Pym Disposes. Although I read by far more mysteries than any other genre, I don’t believe she writes great mysteries. I think I keep returning to her books because of the quality of the writing. She is a gifted writer and her prose is lovely.

    The Franchise Affair is my favorite perhaps in part because the plot of it is superior to the others, and I believe she borrowed some elements from a true case. It also has a very satisfying ending, especially for the main characters, which can’t be said of all her books.


    • That’s the thing about Tey. She’s not a great inventor of mystery scenarios (she herself conceded as much), but she writes exceptional characters and descriptions. She did indeed base The Franchise Affair on the 18th-century Elizabeth Canning case (and the case is mentioned in the course of the book, as a kind of tip of the hat).

      I love Miss Pym Disposes, right up until the last page. Miss Pym seems mentally defective for not putting things right. And there’s The Singing Sands, which turns out to have no story at all. (The manuscript was found after her death, and I prefer to think she was dissatisfied with it and would have given it a thorough rewrite.)


      • I read Miss Pym Disposes only once and decades ago so I can’t recall in much detail why I didn’t care for it, but the strongest memory I do have is that I disliked the ending. I like The Singing Sands not for the plot but for the opening scene on the train (which I adore) and the descriptions of Grant’s mental state.

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        • That’s a good way to enjoy The Singing Sands. There are memorable scenes all the way through, and I enjoy them all. They just turn out not to add up to anything, but we don’t find that out until the end.

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        • God, I love Miss Pym, right down to the sour ending. But then I also love Jumping Jenny, where Roger Sheringham gets everything wrong! People who think they’re too too clever failing – what’s not to love?

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  3. Maybe I just come to Tey for the wrong things. There was one moment in Daughter of Time that resembled what I look for in mysteries (about 2/3 the way through) and the rest is just the low key type of pleasantries that often accompany a mystery… a mystery that never happens here. And The Man in the Queue was refreshing only in suffering from the opposite of the usual flaw— rather than forsaking all clueing for the sake of surprise, it avoids surprise altogether, like the growing indications of a tea party that ultimately reveal themselves to indicate a tea party. Her stuff that I’ve read is anything but cheaply sensational, but 100% percent relief from sensation, with no frissons of, well, anything. Rather than resembling a stimulating day of watching Poirot investigate, they’re like a tranquil day of watching Hastings pack.

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    • Maybe she’s not for you. I’ve only read two, and she is nothing like Christie, Carr, Queen or Brand. The Franchise Affair is not a puzzle mystery at all. For half the book,Tey maintains suspense regarding which of them we should believe; then, when our sympathies for one side have been thoroughly engaged, the suspense shifts to how they’ll prove it. No reversals, no clues, no surprises. Miss Pym Disposes has a murder and a solution, but it’s almost incidental to the effect the case has on the so-called detective and on the school in which it takes place. There may be clues, but I don’t remember them.

      What both books do share is Tey’s gorgeous prose, rich characterization, and biting wit. I swear they DO fit into the genre, but I totally get why they’re not your cup of tea. Frankly, I’m a bit surprised that I slurped them both down!


  4. Pingback: Notes On: The Franchise Affair, 1948 by Josephine Tey – A Crime is Afoot

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