Josephine Tey and the Psychological Detective Story (The Franchise Affair)

By Val Hewson

Josephine Tey (1896-1952), who wrote The Franchise Affair (1948) and seven other detective stories between 1929 and 1952, is not one of the original Golden Age Queens of Crime.  They are Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham.  But Tey surely has a strong claim to be crowned with equal pomp and circumstance.  In an age of the detective-story-as-puzzle, she was a pioneer of the psychological study, focusing on character and exploring psychopathy without, I think, ever using the term.

“You mean how did [the madness] take her? Oh, a complete indifference to everything but the thing she wanted at the moment.”

“That isn’t madness; that is merely the criminal mind at its simplest.”

This quotation from her 1950 novel, To Love and Be Wise, neatly sums up Tey’s guiding theory.  She often depicts the apparently settled member of a family, a community, society, but whose mindset in fact puts him or her beyond the usual bounds.  Time and again we find that the guilty party has some of the traits of the psychopath: apparently charming; a manipulator; poor at relationships; rarely feeling remorse or guilt; carefully planning their crimes.

In The Franchise Affair, Robert Blair, an outwardly contented but inwardly bored country solicitor (notice how appearances deceives – he is only just realising this himself), reluctantly agrees to act for two women suspected of abducting and beating a 15 year-old girl, Betty Kane.  He investigates and, when they are charged, represents them in court.  The villain of the piece (so to speak) demonstrates most of the psychopathic traits mentioned above.  In truth, it is not very difficult to identify the villain.  The interest lies in those deceptive appearances and the slow revelation of the truth.

This is a familiar pattern in Tey’s work.  The reader is kept unsteady (although never allowed to topple over into the dark horror of much crime fiction today).  In her other stand-alone novels, Brat Farrar (1949) and Miss Pym Disposes (1946), appearances again deceive, doubly so in Brat Farrar, as this starts with an impostor after a fortune.  He cannot discover the fate of the boy he is impersonating without revealing his own crime.  Deception piled on deception.  In Tey’s most famous book, Daughter of Time (1951), her series detective, Inspector Alan Grant, investigates the murder of the Princes in the Tower, while convalescing.  In a neat twist, this policeman, for whom assessing people is a professional skill, investigates after seeing the portrait of a man whom he judges instinctively to be honourable, only to find out that this is the notorious Richard.  (Tey’s characters sometimes remark, rather oddly, on physical characteristics revealing the mind beneath: for example, a certain shade of eye colour hiding untrustworthiness.)

Tey’s people are well-drawn.

  • In The Franchise Affair, Robert Blair’s journey from rather dull lawyer to tenacious investigator is entirely convincing.  Mrs Wynn, the foster mother of the abducted girl, is instantly likeable, with a disarming honesty, but her concern and love for Betty twist the heart far beyond what you might expect of a minor character.  Mrs Sharpe and her daughter Marion, whom Robert Blair represents, are unconventional (especially for the late 1940s): they happily avoid society, have no interest in household matters and, when encountered, are sharp, uncomfortable and even unlikeable.
  • In Miss Pym Disposes, the teacher training college at which it is set is single-sex, a world in which women live fulfilled, happy lives training for a profession, not waiting for marriage or even much interested in love.  Few men enter this world and, when they do, they come as occasional visitors.  The crime is the result of professional ambition, not the more usual love or jealousy.  Miss Pym’s student friends, Nash and Innes, are beautifully drawn: cool, competent Innes and lively Nash admired by everyone.  The reader shares the struggles of Miss Pym, not very clever and fearful of the choices before her and the consequences of justice.  And the villain, once revealed, is shockingly inhuman.

It is hard, by the way, not to see some of Josephine Tey’s own experiences and attitudes in her women characters.  She remained unmarried, trained and worked in physical education and then became a noted author and playwright, apparently happy to work alone, with occasional trips to literary events and friends in London.

Much as I admire the innovative quality of The Franchise Affair, I am uncomfortable with its dated depiction of class, deference and small ‘c’ conservatism.  Anything even mildly left-wing or unconventional (including the Sharpes) is looked on with distrust in the insular countryside.  Robert Blair, his family and friends are solidly middle-class – golf at the club, church and the ‘dear vicar’, tennis parties, maidservants and obliging ‘women who do’ – and unconsciously assume superiority.  Then there is the working class.  We see gruff but warm-hearted mechanics Bill and Stan: they certainly know their place, and their cheery deference is hard to take.  Then we meet Rose Glynn, a witness for the prosecution:

Robert was faintly cheered by the bad impression she was patently making on everyone. Her open delight in the dramatic, her Christmas Supplement glossiness, her obvious malice, and her horrible clothes…From the expressions on the faces of her audience she was summed up as a slut and no one would trust her with sixpence.

More uncomfortable still is the reaction of Robert and the Sharpes to being accused by Betty Kane, who in this world is very much their inferior. ‘I could kill that girl; I could kill her. My God, I could torture her twice a day for a year and then begin again on New Year’s day’, says Marion.  And later Robert responds:

If she had broken out as a result of [her foster-brother’s] engagement – as she very well might – I should have nothing but pity for her. She is at an unstable age, and his engagement must have been a shock. But I don’t think that had very much to do with it. I think she is her mother’s daughter; and was merely setting out a little early on the road her mother took. As selfish, as self-indulgent, as greedy, as plausible as the blood she came of.

On this evidence, author Sarah Waters described The Franchise Affair as ‘phobic…even hysterical’ and she may have a point.  I think that Tey (surely a believer in nature over nurture) is again delving beneath appearances and revealing hidden attitudes.  One character at least repents by the end of the novel, on seeing the outcome of the trial.

More acceptable today are two other themes in The Franchise Affair: Tey’s dislike of the media and her disapproval of the treatment meted out to outsiders.  The Ack-Emma and the Watchman, the newspapers which take up the case, are interested only in sensation and making political points respectively.  The Sharpes are made to feel their isolation.  Before the accusation, they are at best tolerated as ‘odd’; afterwards, they are shunned by ‘nice people’ and their home is attacked by working-class hooligans.  Both these themes resonate today, with phone-hacking scandals and refugee crises.

Queen of Crime then? There have been plenty of plaudits and occasional attention.  Daughter of Time was number one in the UK Crime Writers’ Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time (1990) and is at number 4 on the equivalent 1995 list from the Mystery Writers of America.  The Franchise Affair is number 11 on the UK list.  On both lists Tey ranks higher than the original Queens, and Marsh does not appear on either list.  (Have the CWA and MWA ever updated their lists by the way? If not, isn’t it time they did?)  Tey has been championed by Val McDermid (‘Reading Tey for the first time is a surprise and a delight’) and Robert McCrum (‘…deserves to be rediscovered‘) and many bloggers.  A biography, by Jennifer Morag Henderson, is being published by Sandstone Press Ltd in November 2015.  Daughter of Time was in the public eye recently with the discovery and re-burial of Richard III’s body.  And Tey now stars as a fictional detective in Nicola Upson’s novels.  Yet with all this she is not particularly well-remembered, except by detective story fans.

Tey’s early death was a factor.  In life, she avoided publicity (even though she was a successful playwright, under the name Gordon Daviot), and lived mostly in Inverness.  She wrote only a few novels.  Her detective, Alan Grant, is effective and pleasant, but he is not an aristocrat with a private income or a Belgian with waxed moustaches and so does not stick in the memory.  The lack of recognition is perhaps not surprising then, but it is very unfair for an author to whom many of today’s writers of dark thrillers owe much.

4 thoughts on “Josephine Tey and the Psychological Detective Story (The Franchise Affair)

  1. This is a fascinating introduction to Tey. Does she subscribe to phrenological and genetic markers of criminality then? You mention that she emphasises the primacy of Nature over Nature.

  2. I think there is evidence in Tey’s books that she sympathised certainly with the idea of genetic and perhaps with phrenological markers, and I wonder if this was a generational thing. I suspect that ‘bad blood’ and ‘blood will out’ were commonly held beliefs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As Tey was so private and is little remembered, it’s hard to know what she really thought. I’m looking forward to the biography due out soon. This may clarify or explain such things.

  3. I’m a huge fan of Tey’s work and I think you have to forgive her for the elements in the books that date them or reflect the mores of the time. Her plotting and her characterisation are usually strong and Grant is an enjoyable detective. Plus “The Daughter of Time” completely changed how I saw Richard III!

    • Yes, I am generally forgiving because I love the three stand-alones in particular, and would recommend anyone to read them, but I do find some of the remarks in The Franchise Affair uncomfortable. I am, as I said above, looking forward to the biography, to learn more about JT. She seems to me to be both very much of her time and also very unconventional and unusual.

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