|Cover illustration by Romek Marber.|
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