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Robert Blair has an easy job, inherited from his father, in a legal firm in a small town. Fast heading towards middle age, he is beginning to feel that life ought to have some more excitement to offer him. Then he receives a phone call from Marion Sharpe, who has an extraordinary tale to tell. Marion lives with her mother in a country house (The Franchise) surrounded by a high wall that makes it difficult to see from the road. A teenage girl, Betty Kane, who was missing from home for a month, claims that Marion and her mother had kidnapped her and kept her locked up in the attic, beating her when she refused to do household tasks for them. Marion denies this, but Betty knows intimate details of their house. Despite all the evidence, can Robert prove that Betty is lying? Or is it Marion who is not telling the truth?
In her day, Josephine Tey was a well-known writer of crime fiction and one of Agatha Christie's contemporaries. Yet unlike Agatha Christie, her work is little known today. There are reasons for this. Tey's turn of phrase is old-fashioned, whereas the language that Christie uses is much plainer and therefore less likely to go out of fashion. And there is a lack of originality in the characters that Tey presents; Agatha Christie's characters are often larger than life and therefore much more memorable. Nevertheless, I think that Josephine Tey deserves more credit that she receives - she can certainly tell a good story, and that it is characteristic I don't like to ignore.
Although Tey's best known character is a Miss Pym, a little old lady slightly in the mould of Miss Marple, she doesn't feature in this book. Robert Blair is a very ordinary character that, to be honest, rather blends into the background. There's nothing to dislike about him, he just doesn't stand out in any way. Tey attempts to add some layers to his character by creating feelings for Marion Sharpe. This is done so subtlely, however, that it is barely creates a stir. I don't think Robert's lack of depth really mattered all that much, because it does allow the reader to concentrate on the story, which, after all, is the important part. However, if he was a bit more of an attractive character, the story might have been that little bit more compelling.
Marion Sharpe is rather unattractively described by Josephine Tey as being 'skinny' and 'gypsy-like'. Bearing in mind that the story was written just after the Second World War, when people's attitudes to gypsies were not the best, I took this to mean that she was a rather ugly, flat-chested woman that men would find unattractive. However, it turns out that she is actually very attractive, with beautiful hair and vivid eyes. I am glad that Tey didn't equate the characteristics of a gypsy with ugliness, but I don't think she did enough to create the right opinion of Marion, which certainly caused me to be confused for a good part of the book. And it certainly didn't help lift Marion off the pages of the book for me.
The story is an intriguing one. Of course, it wouldn't work in today's climate, with forensic tests and the like, because it would be easy to prove whether Betty had been in the house or not. Set in the late 1940s, it means that the case basically comes down to believing either Betty or the Sharpes. As I had no idea where the story was going to lead, it really drew me in for the first few chapters. About a third of the way in, things started to drag a little though; there is much talk of the court case and there are frequent visits between Robert Blair and the Sharpes, but not much of any merit happens. Then things happen in rather a rush in the last few chapters. I would have liked some more even pacing to keep my interest, but as the book is quite short, at just over 200 pages, it doesn't really matter.
I was slightly disappointed by the solution to the crime. I think the atmosphere had been well built up to that point and I suppose I was expecting some kind of twist. Unfortunately, there isn't one, which left me feeling a bit flat. It didn't ruin the book for me, because I still think that the story is a good one, but it would have been better if the story if the ending was a bit more unexpected. As it is, this is the sort of story that I will probably remember for the beginning, rather than the end.
As already mentioned, some of the language used is quite old-fashioned, which makes it a bit clumsy to read for those unaccustomed to it. For example; there are references to 'gutta-percha', which in this case apparently refers to golf balls filled with gutta-percha, a type of Malay rubber, and to 'a croc', which I believe refers to walking in pairs, as well as 'rag-chewing', meaning discussing. The bulk of the prose is perfectly understandable, but the oddities I've mentioned did make me stop in my tracks more than once. And of course, the descriptions of society at the time are quite alien - very few of the women work and there is a very strong hierarchy in the town, separating the wealthy and the working class. This doesn't put me off, but I can understand that younger readers might find it difficult to take in.
On the whole, I enjoyed this book. It is not going to be one that sticks in the memory for all that long, but for the duration of the read, at least, I found it compelling. I do, however, tend to like crime fiction from this period, so I might be biased. If you like crime fiction and want to try a new author, then this is definitely worth a try, especially if you are already a fan of authors such as Agatha Christie, Patricia Wentworth, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Sayers. It isn't a flawless story, but it is still recommended.
The book is available from play.com for £5.99. Published by Arrow Books, it has 256 pages. ISBN: 9780099452027