Kate Ellis was born and brought up in Liverpool and studied drama in Manchester. She is married and has two grown-up sons and lives in North Cheshire. Kate worked in teaching, marketing and accountancy before discovering that writing crime fiction was what she'd wanted to do all along. The most recent of her many books are The Cadaver Game, Watching the Ghosts and The Shadow Collector. Here she writes about Josephine Tey's The Franchise Affair.
Kate Ellis on The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey
Are things always as they appear to be? And can even overwhelming evidence be proved false? These are the questions at the heart of The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey, originally published in 1948.
Small town solicitor, Robert Blair receives a visit from a woman he knows only by sight; a woman called Marion Sharpe who tells him that she needs legal advice as serious accusations have been made against her and her elderly mother. A fifteen-year-old girl called Betty Kane has made claims that Marion and her mother kidnapped her and imprisoned her at their house The Franchise. She says the two women beat her, starved her and made her work as a domestic slave and she gives a convincing account of her ordeal and of how she managed to escape to tell the harrowing tale of the women's cruelty.
Marion and her mother are outsiders in the community and the people of Milford are only too willing to believe the young girl's terrible allegations. And as the evidence mounts against the Sharpes, the town's residents, urged on by the local paper, The Ack-Emma, unite to persecute the women.
Betty Kane is the picture of innocence, the classic victim with her school uniform, mousy hair, candid eyes and unmade-up face. Detective Inspector Hallam of the local police describes her as a nice kid who could have been one of his own and calls her a prosecuting counsel's dream of a victim. However, Robert Blair feels that her story doesn't quite add up.
The police have no reason to disbelieve the girl who tells the tale of her captivity in such convincing detail. Surely the Sharpe women are lying. However, as Blair gets to know Marion better he is increasingly convinced of her innocence.
The Franchise Affair is a disturbing study of prejudice. The people of Milford, emboldened by the local press, are only too eager to believe the worst of two women who don't quite fit into their closed community and the whispers soon turn to violence.
Robert Blair is attracted to Marion Sharpe and there is the ever present possibility that this attraction is affecting his judgement. But even so, he can't shake off the feeling that something is amiss, that the sweet Betty Kane is an expert liar. As in all good detective stories, it is the tenacity of the investigator, in this case Robert Blair aided by DI Grant of Scotland Yard and DI Hallam of the local force, that brings the guilty to justice. Being used to crime, the policemen can keep an open mind and accept that things are not always as they seem, and it is with the professionals' help that the truth is eventually brought to light.
The book describes vividly the life of a small town in the 1950s, with its hierarchy and preoccupations. The Sharpes are treated with suspicion because they don't quite conform. They are seen as women who 'keep themselves to themselves', which, it is suggested, means they could have something unsavoury to hide.
My latest book, The Shadow Collector, deals with 17th century witchcraft, and many of the same social factors that caused women to be accused of being witches centuries ago are seen quite clearly in The Franchise Affair. Josephine Tey's novel is dominated by the often unseen and pervasive presence of the apparently harmless child who makes terrible accusations with the support of the community, demanding that the wrongs done to her are avenged. Reading accounts of witch trials during the course of my research for The Shadow Collector, I found many such cases of apparently innocent young girls accusing neighbours they disliked of consorting with the devil, girls who were as convincing as Betty Kane.
As Robert digs deeper into Betty's version of events he begins to find discrepancies and ask some searching questions. How, for instance, is Betty able to give such an accurate description of the inside of The Franchise, a house she claims never to have visited until the Sharpes kept her there by force? If Betty's story wasn't true, where had she been during the time she was missing from home? And what is the significance of the temporary substitution of a double decker bus for a single decker on the route that runs past The Franchise? When the truth finally emerges, the solution is as satisfying as it is believable. But I won't spoil things for those who haven't yet read this excellent book by giving the game away.
The Franchise Affair is a crime novel without a murder but somehow the case is so intriguing that the regular crime fiction reader's regular dose of blood and death isn't really missed. It is a combination of mystery and social observation and I consider it to be one of the finest and most unforgettable novels in the history of crime fiction.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]