by M. K. Waller
On his twenty-first birthday, Simon Ashby will become a rich man. He’ll inherit both his mother’s fortune and Latchetts, the estate left by his parents on their accidental death eight years ago. In the interim, his aunt Bee has, by skillful management, built Latchetts into a profitable farm and riding stable.
The other Ashby children—Simon’s sisters, nineteen-year-old Eleanor and nine-year-old twins Jane and Ruth—look forward to his becoming master of Latchetts. Bee’s pleasure is marred only by the memory of Patrick, Simon’s twin, who shortly after their parents’ death disappeared, a presumed suicide.
Six weeks before Simon’s birthday, however, a stranger calling himself Brat Farrar appears and claims to be the long-lost Patrick. He looks like Simon, remembers everything Patrick should, has a reasonable explanation for his long absence, and—a striking distinction—knows and loves horses. Initially skeptical, Bee is yet open to the possibility of Brat’s being her missing nephew. The Ashbys might have a second reason to celebrate.
Except for Simon—because Patrick is the older twin. If Bee accepts Brat as an Ashby, Simon will be displaced. Brat will inherit everything.
So far, author Josephine Tey has laid a conventional foundation for the mystery Brat Farrar.
But in the third chapter, Tey departs from the pattern by exposing critical information: Before the Ashbys have even heard of Brat Farrar, the reader knows Brat is an imposter, come “home” solely to take possession of Latchetts. The Ashby’s prodigal son is a fraud.
We readers, instead of wondering about Brat’s identity, focus on the Ashbys as they walk, unsuspecting, into a web of deceit. And, although we know what they don’t, we walk right into it with them.
P. D. James liked mysteries, she said, because of their ordered structure—”in the end, the villain is caught and justice is done.” But here’s the rub: we don’t want Brat caught or justice done. We like him. We not only understand him, we cheer him on. We hope he achieves his goal. We don’t approve of criminal behavior, of course, but we want him to have Latchetts and the horses he loves.
Mystery writers often present their characters with moral dilemmas; here, Tey hands one to readers. She serves us up an exceedingly good read and makes us uncomfortable the whole time we’re reading.
“Impersonation,” says mystery writer Robert Barnard, “has been at the heart of many detective stories, but it has seldom carried the emotional charge of Brat Farrar, and our sympathies are never in a mere puzzle so skilfully and so surprisingly manipulated.”
He points to this as a mark of Tey’s “essence,” her “brilliant storytelling: her varied, loving characterization; above all, her control of reader sympathies.” In Brat Farrar, Tey definitely has control.
And the storytelling is brilliant. Tey, says Barnard, “often reveals a sort of impatience with the rules and conventions of the whodunit.” Three of her mysteries—Brat Farrar, The Daughter of Time, and The Franchise Affair— occupy “that hinterland—often uneasy, but not in her hands—between the crime novel and the ‘novel proper.'”
The Daughter of Time, named in 1990 one of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, is a history lesson wrapped in a detective story. At the suggestion of actress friend Marta Hallard, Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant, hospitalized with a broken leg, passes the time by researching the life of Richard III of England. Studying material brought to him by several other friends and colleagues, he concludes that Richard was a good man, not a murderer, and that the image of the evil hunchback made famous by Shakespeare was merely Tudor propaganda. Colin Dexter’s The Wench Is Dead, an Inspector Morse mystery published in 1989, is an homage to Daughter.
My favorite of Tey’s books, The Franchise Affair, doesn’t feature a murder at all. The third in the Inspector Alan Grant series, it concerns a charge of kidnapping leveled against the Sharpes, a middle-aged woman and her elderly mother, newcomers whom the residents of the nearby village consider eccentric. A teenage war orphan accuses them of luring her to their house, demanding she do domestic work, and when she refuses, imprisoning her in an attic. The women claim they’ve never seen the girl. Robert Blair, the solicitor who responds to Marian Sharpe’s call for assistance—and who’s never handled a criminal case—finds them trustworthy and personable, and Inspector Grant dismisses the girl’s story as a fabrication. Within days, however, Grant is back with an arrest warrant, and as evidence against the Sharpes mounts, villagers believe the worst. Characters are so well drawn it’s easy to believe they have lives beyond the page; the plot is tight and suspenseful. Tey proves beyond doubt that murder isn’t necessary for a first-class mystery.
(The artist responsible for the cover pictured above either disagrees with my last assertion or failed to read the book—the body on the cover has no relation to anything inside.)
Tey, whose real name was Elizabeth MacIntosh, was a native of Scotland. Little is known about her personal life. “She lives,” writes Barnard, “by her works alone.” She wrote a number of historical plays under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot. She wrote only eight mysteries—six in the Inspector Grant series and two stand-alones—between 1929 and her untimely death in 1952, the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. But the quality of those novels establishes her as one of the great writers of British crime fiction, in the same league as Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Marjorie Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers.
I give the last word to Robert Barnard, who goes a step further in his praise:
“If Ngaio Marsh or Christie had died as young as Tey, we would have a good idea of what they could have gone on writing. We can guess that Tey would have written several more whodunits, but what she would have written is beyond our guesswork. That in itself is her best tribute.”
A complete list of Josephine Tey’s mysteries is found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephine_Tey.
Robert Barnard’s fine introduction to the works of Josephine Tey, published by Simon and Schuster.
Barbara C. Sealock, “Queen of Crime: No Mystery in the Charm of P.D. James.” Chicago Tribune, March 31, 1985.
M. K. Waller’s short stories appear in Austin Mystery Writers‘ crime fiction anthologies, MURDER ON WHEELS and LONE STAR LAWLESS. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.