Josephine Tey, the English crime writer, died in 1952; but if you go to Amazon.co.uk and type in her name, you get 172 results; and on Amazon.com you get 109. In other words, the lady is still in print, is still published in a wide variety of formats, still selling, and still being read. That being the case, it is worth having a look at her life and methods in order to see what might be learnt.
This author's real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh, and she was born in 1896 or '97. Not much seems to be known about her private life, but in addition to the crime writing she also had a separate career as a playwright under the name Gordon Daviot. She seems to have regarded the playwrighting as far more important than the crime fiction.
I have recently read Josephine Tey's novels The Franchise Affair and Brat Farrar, in the American editions published by Scribner/Simon & Schuster; these have a new introduction by Robert Barnard. Warning: in what follows, I may 'reveal the ending' of these two books; but actually that is no great sin, because in neither of them is there any dramatic revelation at the end; these are not whodunits, in which the murderer is unmasked on the last page, with all the suspects assembled in the library.
The Franchise Affair was first published in 1948, and it was a famous book in the 1950s, when I was growing up. It was filmed in 1950, as a vehicle for Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray, and I seem to remember it being serialised by the BBC in the '50s too. In any event it was filmed again in 1988; it was broadcast as a TV movie in the US and as a serial in the UK. And, on 8 October of this year, the book was dramatised as a radio play on BBC Radio 4. So it has legs, as they say.
The plot of the book is quite simple. The scene is a small, slightly sleepy English town in the Midlands, late 1940s. Two respectable but not very well off ladies, mother and daughter, live in The Franchise, a big house on the outskirts.
One day a fifteen-year-old girl, who has been missing from home for some time, finally turns up in a slightly dishevelled state. She claims that she has been held prisoner by the two ladies; not only held prisoner but tied up and beaten with a dog whip, starved of food, and otherwise mistreated. She describes the two women in detail; describes the house; describes the room where she was kept prisoner. And the two women are eventually accused of abduction.
The central character is the solicitor who agrees, reluctantly, to defend the two women. And the women, naturally enough, deny that they have ever clapped eyes on the girl before.
There is no murder here then, let alone a series of murders; neither is there any great mystery, because the reader is not left in any doubt that the young girl is lying through her teeth. The only question is, what was she doing while she was missing from home? Can the defence solicitor find any evidence of that?
In the end, of course, he can; and in the end, being a single man, he naturally falls for the younger of the two women whom he is defending.
Now wherein -- whether in 1948 or today -- lies the appeal of all this?
The answer -- I suppose, and I confess I am groping somewhat here -- lies in the fundamental decency of the central characters. Robert, the solicitor, is dull and not very energetic, but he is honest, reliable, and keeps his word; that kind of thing. Marion, the younger of the two women, is down to earth and sensible; she has never been married because she prefers not to be. These likeable if not very heroic central figures are contrasted -- but not over-dramatically so -- with the less sympathetic characters.
Betty Kane, the young girl, is clearly no better than she ought to be, and a lying psychopath to boot, but she is not presented to us as some sort of monster; rather she appears to be a bit like that girl down the road: much too fond of the boys, and prone to tell tales to get herself out of trouble.
There are also portraits of some of the more unattractive features of England in 1948, features which have become all too familiar with the passing years. We have crowds of hooligans breaking the windows of The Franchise, for instance, when the two women are formally accused; also tabloid newspapers which print the purest fiction about them.
Although the setting is very definitely post-war England, the time and place are not over-emphasised. The war, so far as I can remember, is never mentioned; food rationing, which was still in force, is not mentioned either.
And so we come to the inevitable ending -- inevitable in the sense that this is commercial fiction.
Over the course of the book, Josephine Tey has built up in the reader a sense of gross outrage at this clearly false accusation made against two harmless and respectable women, and we are never in much doubt that they will get off -- somehow. Very bravely, in my opinion, the author chooses to have the rescue of the afflicted come about through pure chance. And, what is more, she points out to the reader that it is pure chance. Or Providence, as she chooses to call it.
A key witness is found who establishes beyond doubt that Betty Kane, the allegedly imprisoned victim, had in fact picked up a businessman in a bar, had gone with him to Copenhagen for a couple of weeks, while he pursued his business there; and, when the affair came to an end, had made up a story, complete with convincing detail, to cover her absence.
At the end, Robert asks Marion to marry him, but she refuses. She and her mother plan to make a fresh start in Canada. Robert at first appears to accept this, but then changes his mind; the book ends with him boarding the same plane and taking a seat at Marion's side.
So. We have a clear, well defined, well written narrative, the central element being an unjust accusation against two innocent and likeable women. The person who defends them is a man of good standing, not dynamic but dependable. The 'villain' is an immoral and precocious schoolgirl. And we have a love story with a satisfactory and upbeat conclusion.
Just remember that, in 1948, there were a whole lot of people who had good reason for taking satisfaction in seeing evil defeated; and there were just as many who had a dream of making a new life for themselves -- somewhere far away, where there was no rationing, where houses were properly heated in winter, and where the powers that be were not living in the past.
The second of Josephine Tey's books that I have read recently is Brat Farrar, from 1949. This was also adapted for television, in 1986.
Here the central character is Brat Farrar himself. Brat was abandoned as a baby and was brought up in an orphanage; for a few years he has been working in the States, with horses, and now, shortly before his twenty-first birthday, he is back home in England. Brat meets a man who mistakes him for someone else. They talk, and eventually Brat is persuaded to impersonate Patrick Ashby. Patrick is believed to have committed suicide at the age of thirteen, though the body was never found. By returning from the dead, so to speak, the imposter Patrick can claim ownership, at age twenty-one, of a substantial estate.
Through clever briefing from his criminal mentor, Brat succeeds in persuading the lawyers and the family that he is indeed Patrick Ashby, who was thought to be dead. Thus we have, as our central character, a man who is a criminal, at least in intent; and therefore, one might think, he is a character whom it is difficult to make sympathetic. The fact that Josephine Tey does manage to make him sympathetic is, I think, testimony to her skills; the reader may have strong reservations about Brat's character, but most readers, over the years, have gone on reading.
The book contains, by the way, a considerable amount of information about breeding horses: either Josephine Tey knew a lot about horses before she started the book, or else she was a very fine researcher.
Of course you don't have to be very bright to work out that Brat looks exactly like a member of the Ashby family because he is a member of the family: the son of a black sheep whose mother was not able to look after him and put him in good hands. Neither do you require Einstein's IQ to work out that the original Patrick was in fact murdered, at age thirteen, by his twin brother -- the man whom Brat is about to cheat of his inheritance.
What we have here, in short, is a complicated plot in which even the average reader could have picked multiple holes. But we find that Tey has anticipated every one of the reader's possible objections, and has contrived ways in which to overcome our very natural scepticism. The book is something of a tour de force in creating sympathy for a character who, properly speaking, ought to arouse feelings of contempt.
This is another book which ends with the principal characters deciding to leave England, though in this instance they head for Northern Ireland. In those days it was still possible to imagine that moving to Northern Ireland was a smart move. Just about.
Perhaps now we can suggest a few conclusions about how the books which Josephine Tey cobbled together in the 1940s, and which she herself seems not to have regarded all that highly, have continued to find and to satisfy readers.
First, I suppose we must mention her carefully wrought plots. As we have seen, the two books discussed here are not just run of the mill whodunits; there is scarcely a mystery in either of them. But they do involve crime, and therefore both these books represent something that has often been thought of as the holy grail of crime writing: i.e. a novel in which crime is an element but which has all the finest components of 'higher' and more literary forms. (Margery Allingham is perhaps the most famous example of a writer who is thought of in those terms.)
Secondly, we must acknowledge Tey's extreme skill in creating sympathetic, credible characters. It is no accident, in my view, that she had had an earlier career as a playwright. A playwright must learn to portray character through action, and to do so quickly; and a playwright has to write in scenes, rather than having someone just tell the story.
Another point which it is easy to overlook at this distance in time is that Tey's stories and characters were quite bold and daring by the standards of the 1940s. The Franchise Affair features, as we have already noted, a fifteen-year-old girl who can effortlessly pick up a salesman in a hotel bar, and has no qualms about spending a randy two weeks with him in foreign parts. (The average reader in those days had probably been no further than Brighton.)
Not only is the girl a pretty startling character for the period, but the salesman is too. Despite being married, he is quite ready to testify in court as to what he got up to. Furthermore, his wife testifies that they have an 'open' marriage; she knew all about the girl! And then there is the faint hint of S&M in the alleged whipping of the girl. Very faint indeed by our standards, but enough to shock and titillate some in its day.
One way and another, Josephine Tey was a formidable talent: one worth investigating if you're in the crime-fiction business.
Her most famous book is probably The Daughter of Time, in which she seeks to rehabilitate the good name of Richard III: that king of England who is portrayed by Shakespeare as the blackest of villains. Should you wish to know more about this book (and about Tey), a learned essay by the book critic of the Washington Post is available online.