Josephine Tey’s crime novel The Franchise Affair is one of those titles so famed that many readers know the premise. Sometimes feeling you remember the set-up of a book too well can put you off re-reading it for years. When I finally did, I soon realised I’d forgotten just how good a novel this is. I was hooked again from the first page.
Published in 1949, the plot was inspired by the real case of an eighteenth century maidservant called Elizabeth Canning. In 1753 she went missing for almost a month, claiming she’d been abducted and held prisoner by two women.
As the novel opens, Robert Blair is a fortyish solicitor with a comfortable, settled life in the appealing small Midlands town of Milford. Though he’s started to wonder if he’ll grow old with the weeks marked only by clients, golf and the biscuits his secretary places on his tea tray.
It had to do with the inevitability of the biscuit routine; the placid certainty that it would be digestive on a Thursday and petit-beurre on a Monday. Until the last year or so, he had found no fault with certainty or placidity. He had never wanted any other life but this: this quiet friendly life in the place where he had grown up.
He receives a telephone call from Marion Sharpe. She and her mother have been accused of kidnapping a girl and holding her prisoner in their secluded house The Franchise. The girl describes their home very convincingly and the police can’t shake her story. Believing the Sharpes are innocent, Robert Blair turns detective in a race against time to solve the puzzle before they go on trial.
This is an intriguing mystery and most unusual in that there is no murder. Tey’s series detective Inspector Alan Grant appears only as a minor character. Elegantly written, the narrative draws the reader into a vanished England, pleasantly dull provincial life a few years after the Second World War.
Familiar Agatha Christie territory at first but as the two women come under increasing harassment, Tey shows a disturbing view of society which is as relevant today as when it was written. Press witch-hunts, snap judgement of strangers and mob violence are sadly still with us. She writes about how people view those of us who are perceived to be slightly ‘different’. Do we really know our neighbours behind their respectable masks?
The Franchise Affair is such a strong novel with a refreshingly original plot, a lovely sense of place and totally believable characters. The reader quickly becomes partisan, loving the allies that appear and longing for the right outcome. The well-paced story unravels with intelligent detective work and growing tension. The ending is very satisfying, holding more than a foregone conclusion.
It’s many years since I saw the film made in 1951, starring Michael Denison and – you’ve guessed it – Dulcie Gray, must seek it out. I remember the 1988 BBC serial which starred Patrick Malahide, Joanna McCallum and Rosalie Crutchley. (Rosalie Crutchley who played Mrs Sharpe had been Marion in an earlier version from 1962.) How I wish they were available on DVD. Patrick Malahide is one of my favourite actors (he played a wonderful Roderick Alleyn from Ngaio Marsh’s detective novels) and from what I recall, it was a first-class production.
The Franchise Affair was voted number eleven in the CWA 100 Best Crime Novels. I’m not keen on the idea of such polls being taken as definitive – how could they be? However, it’s testament to how many people love this novel. If you enjoy period detection, it’s an absolute gem.
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