On Our Bookshelves: The Franchise Affair

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NOVEL: The Franchise Affair

AUTHOR: Josephine Tey

YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1949

REVIEW: 

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The Franchise Affair is beautifully written, a mystery well-told.  It’s considered a classic in the genre, one of the Crime Writers’ Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time and one of the Mystery Writers of America’s Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time.  It concerns an attorney, Robert Blair, attempting to defend his clients, an elderly woman and her adult daughter (the Sharpes), accused of kidnapping and beating Betty Kane, a young girl of 15, and holding her captive for a month.  They insist that they’ve never even seen her before, but her story includes details about their home that a stranger couldn’t possibly know.  

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What’s lovely about the book is the characterization, brilliantly done, and the setting, a small English village, in a rapidly changing time (post WWII, when coercing a schoolgirl into domestic service was a believable motive), affectionately rendered.  It’s cleverly plotted, engaging, full of surprising depth and psychological insight, and subtly humorous.

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What’s decidedly unlovely about it is the rather horrific notion that eye color and facial structure are reliable marks of criminality, and the utterly blatant sexism and classism that run through the story.  The upper classes (even those suffering some unfortunate financial distress, like the impoverished gentry accused here, pitied for being barely able to afford to keep servants) are worthy and upright, whereas the lower classes are gullible fools at best, and quite likely violent and dangerous.  Liberal reformers are ignorant and arrogant, doing more harm than good. The press is sensationalistic and bloodthirsty, telling lies to a reading public lacking in critical thinking skills. And the police are, unfortunately, less interested in truth and justice than in saving face.  (Okay: some of this, unfortunately, is fair criticism, then and now.)

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If you can handle the reactionary politics and the moral panic over gender and sexuality, you will find the story and the author’s adept handling of our sympathies exceedingly fine.  But the rather vile views on display here (even more jarring than most books of the time are to modern sensibilities) make this period piece a bit difficult to read with unalloyed pleasure.

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RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 3 1/2 Whistles

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HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and two cockatiels.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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Book Cover and Book Cover Image – Simon & Schuster

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