The Franchise Affair is based on the 18th century case of Elizabeth Canning, an Englishwoman who claimed that she had been abducted and taken to a house where an old woman tried to persuade her to become a prostitute. When she refused, the woman locked her up, intending to hold her prisoner until she relented, giving her nothing but water and crusts of bread. After nearly a month, Canning said, she had escaped through a window. Many believed her story and a local Romany woman, a Miss Mary Squires, was convicted of the crime, despite three witnesses who swore she had been elsewhere. A later inquiry, after Squires had served her six-month term, was conducted amid a huge media frenzy similar to that around the Road House Murder, and resulted in Canning being convicted of perjury.
In Tey’s 1948 novel, solicitor Robert Blair’s quiet life in an English market town, where nothing much changes from generation to generation, is interrupted by a phone call from a stranger, Marion Sharpe, who asks for his help. Sharpe and her elderly mother had recently moved to the area, to an isolated house outside of town. Betty Kane, a servant whom they had dismissed, claimed that the two women had imprisoned her in an upstairs room where they starved and beat her.
I read first read this book as a teenager (eons ago) during my first infatuation with Tey. I didn't remember the story at all, nor do I recall what I thought about it. Wish I did, because this is such an adult book, I can't believe I appreciated it sufficiently back then. It's so smart, so witty. I love all the one-liners, which are not only entertaining but are marvels of compressed characterisation. When Marion is first talking to Robert, she says, “‘You know what I feel like? . . .I feel like someone drowning in a river because she can't drag herself up the bank, and instead of giving me a hand you point out that the other bank is better to crawl out on.'” And when old Mrs Sharpe is first confronted by Betty Kane, she says, “‘For two people on beating terms we are distressingly ill acquainted.'”
In fact, Mrs. Sharpe is the character I found most interesting, and most baffling. Robert and Marion I felt I had a handle on right away, but I wasn't sure what to think about Mrs. Sharpe. If there was a crime, I could believe she was behind it. I didn't feel that I knew her until the very end. For me, the mystery around her kept open the possibility that the two women were actually guilty.
The story starts rather slowly with Robert contemplating knocking off work early, but I was in no hurry for the action's catalyst to appear. I found myself savoring each sentence, completely hooked by the time I reached bottom of the first page, with Robert’s tea tray in a patch of sunlight, the tray he is brought every day, with a white cloth, and a digestive biscuit on Thursdays and a petit-beurre on Mondays. So precise. So perfect.
Besides Tey’s remarkable prose, a great joy of the book is that other characters develop in unexpected ways. I thought staid and sedentary Robert would be rather stupid “from the dumb-sidekick school” as a member of my book club remarked. I also was afraid Robert’s Aunt Lin would be the butt of silly-old-women digs; his nephew, Neville, who helps with the investigation, a caricature of wayward youth; and the mechanics, who come to the aid of the two women, typical village louts. What a pleasant surprise to find all of them turning out to be more complex than I imagined.
I loved this book! I loved the puzzle, the pacing, the characters, and the subtle way Tey brings in details of village life. I’m grateful to my book club for sending me back to it and highly recommend it.