Sunday, 25 May 2014

Penguin no. 841: The Franchise Affair
by Josephine Tey

Cover illustration by Romek Marber.
If he is so interested in justice he might do something about that. But your lot are never interested in justice, are they? Only injustice....What do I mean by your lot? Just what I say. You and all your crowd, who are forever adopting good-for-nothings and championing them against the world. You wouldn't put out a finger to keep a hard-working little man from going down the drain, but let an old lag lack the price of a meal and your sobs can be heard in Antarctica. You make me sick.

I was reminded, as I read this, of a scene from an old episode of The Twilight Zone, in which a street of neighbours turn upon one of their own (and I've sometimes wondered if that scene was the inspiration for a similar moment in Toy Story). The provocations may differ, but the reactions are very much what The Franchise Affair is about: the upright, moral, but unthinking majority, and the damage they can do.

They are somewhat less forthright in this English setting, so that while there is still the rush to judgement, there is less of an inclination to confront the alleged transgressors directly. The chosen tactics are a little more subtle: there is the ready willingness to think the worst, the spreading of gossip, the cold-shoulder in the High Street, and the outraged letters to the editor. And some young men entertain themselves late at night by yelling abuse over a gate, and leave behind a little offensive graffiti. But in time the degree of the bullying escalates, leading to broken windows and other vandalism. All this is directed at two older women, a mother and her unmarried daughter, who live together at an isolated location in a house known as The Franchise.

Josephine Tey's scope is even broader, however, in that she considers the various concerns which motivate such behaviour, from the profit motive of the tabloid newspapers who care less about the truth and more about creating any sensation which will encourage the sale of their product, and the many villagers who lack the ability to think critically, and are too accepting of any story they hear. But her greatest scorn seems reserved for those who would seek to display an assumed moral and intellectual superiority by championing any position at odds with the mainstream.

This story is about the easy assumptions that people make - the tendency to take one small piece of information, infer the remainder, and then draw conclusions without making any allowance for the uncertainty inherent in their suppositions, and possibly not recognising that they are suppositions at all. Marion Sharpe and her mother live in a large house and so they are assumed to be wealthy; Betty Kane is a war-orphan and a child still at school and so she is assumed to be innocent, and, by extrapolation, truthful. The public and the police seem to condition their response on her youth and so take her statements at face value, while the Sharpes' words are doubted; the question being explored here is whether Betty Kane might be trading upon such assumptions, and callously disregarding the consequences to be suffered by others as she tells a story which casts her as a victim.

For Betty Kane alleges that on a certain day late in March she was abducted from a bus stop by the Sharpes who then kept her imprisoned for a month, subjecting her to beatings when she refused to undertake their housework. The Sharpes' motive is alleged to be underpinned by their difficulty in finding and keeping a maid. And it is true that they do have just such a difficulty, and furthermore, Betty can support her story with a detailed description of every feature of their home, from the attic bedroom, to the covering upon the staircase, to the chipped pitcher in the kitchen. But then just how varied are the furnishings of such homes, and how easy would it be to conjecture upon the fittings of one if you were familiar with the fittings of another?

Josephine Tey was referencing the historical case of Elizabeth Canning who went missing on New Year's Day in 1753 after having dinner at her aunt's house, and returned one month later, emaciated and near death. She claimed to have been imprisoned in Bishopsgate at the house of Mother Wells until she managed to escape; her imprisonment was meant to induce her to work as a prostitute. Canning was initially believed, but later transported for perjury, although her tale reads as though it was faulty record-keeping that was her undoing.

I am not a fan of Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, and so it took me a long, long time to consider taking up another of her books. The Franchise Affair is a far more interesting story which is well-told, although I'm not sure I would consider it a particularly successful mystery. That aspect is undermined by the strong focus upon her message that the person being cast as the victim may not be the good guy, and may not be a victim at all. With such a strong focus on this underlying message, there was never any doubt as to how the story was going to end.

First published by Peter Davies 1948. Published by Penguin Books 1951. This edition 1969.

By the same author:
Penguin no 990. The Daughter of Time

5 comments:

  1. This sort of thing happens frequently in the age of the Internet. One of the first things to be lost in the computer age was the presumption of innocence.

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  2. I enjoyed the Franchise Affair, but agree with you that there were few surprises in the plot line! I have A Daughter of Time waiting to be read as well, so maybe I should get cracking on that for comparison....

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  3. I loved this book when I first read it many years ago, but was disappointed on a recent re-read. I do like Tey, but you have to take her with a pinch of salt. She is opinionated and snobbish, and seems to hold the view that the poshos are right - which is no better than assuming they are always guilty... My favourite of her books is Brat Farrar, which I think does stand up well as a picture of post-War England. I actually find Franchise Affair lacking in that direction - although it has lots of contemporary references, it seemed to me (on a second reading) not to be rooted convincingly in any reality.

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    Replies
    1. Moira,

      I agree that Tey is opinionated - or perhaps too confident in her opinions, and not open to considering the possibility that her reasoning may be flawed. It was partly an arrogance of this kind that I detected and found so off-putting in The Daughter of Time.

      I see her criticisms as completely valid - tabloid newspapers do chase dollars, many people lack the ability to think critically, and the world seems filled with people intent on displaying their virtue publicly by championing any cause they can find, but of course these are not the only ills to which Society is subject, and there can be errors in the opposing direction as well, and these she ignores.

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  4. This is a book that I am interested in reading, though like you I have some reservations about Josephine Tey. I have read and actually enjoyed "The Daughter of Time" even though on reflection I disagreed with a lot of it. That book made some good and valid points, and this one seems to as well. But a lot of the arguments and conclusions in "The Daughter of Time" were faulty.

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