Josephine Tey has just shot to the top of the list of my favourite authors. Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard was already up there as the most humane and likeable literary detective of my reading to date, but although he does play a (very minor) role in this novel, it is an unqualified, unlikely, middle-aged conservative bachelor by the name of Robert Blair who does the detecting in this mystery.
Robert Blair, solicitor of the business Blair, Hayward, & Bennet, has his tea-tray brought to him at exactly 3:50pm every working day, with a continuity that has remained unchanged for as long as he can remember. This had never bothered him - until recently. On this particular afternoon, a totally foreign thought entered his head, unbidden, as he looked at the empty tea-tray on his desk:
'This is all you are ever going to have.'
This thought was accompanied by a sudden constricting sensation in his chest. Both the thought and the feeling were extremely puzzling to him as he was quite happy with his life and had no wish to change anything.
He was getting ready to go home that evening when the phone rang and a woman by the name of Marion Sharpe asked if he would help her with some legal backing. When the woman told him her circumstances and that Scotland Yard was already involved, he tried to pass her on to someone else who dealt with criminal cases as he had no experience in this area at all.
'I don't want a criminal lawyer. I want a friend...you don't need a training in crime for that, do you?'
'No, but you would be much better served by a firm who were used to police cases. A firm that - 'What you are trying to tell me is that this is not 'your cup of tea?; that's it, isn't it?'
'No, if course not, Robert said hastily. 'I quite honestly feel that you would be wiser -'
'You know what I feel like?' she broke in. 'I feel like someone drowning in a river because she can't drag herself up the bank, and instead of giving me a hand you point out that the other bank is much better to crawl out on.'
Miss Marion Sharpe lived with her elderly, outspoken mother (imagine Maggie Smith of Downtown Abbey in reduced circumstances) in a house known as The Franchise that they inherited about three or four years previously. Blair made his way to the house after agreeing to 'watch out for Miss Sharpe's interests' while Scotland Yard was on the premises, with the understanding that he was not obliged to assist her any further if he decided he did not want to be involved.
The detectives from Scotland Yard had arrived that day with Betty Kane, a teenaged girl who said that she had been picked up in a car and detained by two women who wanted to make a servant of her; that they kept her locked up when she refused, and had beaten and starved her before she eventually escaped. The girl described The Franchise and the women in great detail and bore signs of having been beaten. The Sharpes denied the charges and insisted that they had never laid eyes on the girl before.
The Franchise Affair was a splendid mystery and an irresistible read. The characters were wonderfully drawn, the plot original, and the ending unguessable. Tey's psychological observations are first class, especially those concerning the criminal mind:
'Your true criminal...has two unvarying characteristics, and it is these two characteristics that make him a criminal. Monstrous vanity and colossal selfishness...
The criminal is a person who makes the satisfaction of his own immediate personal wants the mainspring of his actions. You can't cure him of his egotism, but you can make the indulgence of it not worth his while.'
My two favourite characters were Robert Blair - self-deprecating and dependable:
'Your friend is a charmer, isn't he,? (Marion) said...
'It's the Irish,' Robert said, gloomily. 'It comes as natural to them as breathing. Us poor Saxons plod along our brutish ways and wonder how they do it.'
She had turned to give him the tray to carry, and so was facing him with their hands almost touching. 'The Saxons have the two qualities that I value most in this world. Two qualities that explain why they have inherited the earth. Kindness and dependability...Two qualities the Celt never had; which is why the Irish have inherited nothing but squabbles.'
And old Mrs Sharpe...
'This is Mr. Blair, of Blair, Hayward, and Bennet - the firm who have that lovely house at the top of the High Street.”
As Robert bowed the old woman fixed him with her seagull’s eye.
'Needs re-tiling,' she said.
It did, but it was not the greeting he had expected.
It comforted him a little that her greeting to Grant was even more unorthodox. Far from being impressed or agitated by the presence of Scotland Yard in her drawing-room of a spring afternoon, she merely said in her dry voice: 'You should not be sitting in that chair; you are much too heavy for it.'
For his money, old Mrs Sharpe was quite capable of beating seven different people between breakfast and lunch, any day of the week.
All in all, an original, stimulating and satisfying read. But set aside some time to lose yourself in Tey's masterful writing. It's just so hard to put this book down once you start.