Old Attitudes and Modern Stories

Last week I finally read ‘The Franchise Affair’ by Josephine Tey. It had been on my To Be Read list for quite a number of years, Tey being one of those authors I was always aware I really ought to be reading but somehow never quite got round to. Of course there is something rather pleasant about keeping what one hopes will turn out to be delicious treats back for a rainy day, and there have been more than enough of those lately.

‘The Franchise Affair’ is certainly a treat, being a book that pulls off that rare feat of feeling both solidly rooted in its particular historical context and utterly contemporary all at once. Its underlying narrative of a teenage girl accusing a middle aged spinster and her mother of kidnap and abuse is hardly cosy, yet if one might be tempted to think of it as being a particularly ‘modern’ theme, it is worth remembering that the tale was itself inspired by an 18th Century case, written up and published as a piece of non-fiction in 1925 by Arthur Machen.

Although routinely listed as the third instalment of Tey’s ‘Inspector Grant’ series, Grant’s presence is barely acknowledged throughout the book which is otherwise narrated by small County Town solicitor Robert Blair. Blair is rather a closeted lifelong bachelor and the whole case is essentially his awakening to the world outside his previously insular existence. That he is so abruptly thrust into the role of amateur detective and Defender Of Honour is surely as calculated a literary conceit as it is almost accidental in its fictional occurrence. This is Fate intervening as Modernity intrudes on rural traditions; the despoiling inevitability of tabloid journalism and populist mob mentality as perfidious as the sprawling strip developments penetrating from Town to Country.

If one were being harsh one might also read ‘The Franchise Affair’ as a piece of anti-feminism that strives to position womens’ desire for sex as something indicative of deceitful tricksters, their interest in pleasure something to be kept in the shadows of shame. Certainly there is little in the depiction of Betty Kane’s activities and character to suggest any degree of sympathy from anyone, and it is hardly a spoiler to note that the book is less about the doubt surrounding Kane’s story than it is about discovering ‘truth’ behind apparently convincing lies.

There is a sense throughout ‘The Franchise Affair’, then, that Tey is exploring a key turning point in social history. Betty Kane in so many ways feels like a proto-teenager. She feels like the kind of so-called Juvenile Delinquent the world would be seeing more of as the 1940s ended and the 1950s progressed: strong, self-possessed working class girls whose sense of identity and self-preservation might have been built on the traumas of War, but who were unapologetic for all that.

Tey might be expressing distaste with such women, but she herself would have experienced something of this in the 1920s of course, as a previous generation of young women refused to give back the freedoms they had fought for through The Great War. This, and the simple fact that the story is based on something that happened a century before, suggest that whilst Tey is shining a light on a coming (near) future, she is also recognising that such a future is but a continuation of a past that falls in on itself, endlessly repeating. It is this tacit acknowledgement, I think, that makes ‘The Franchise Affair’ feel so ageless.

Having so enjoyed ‘The Franchise Affair’ then, I was of course eager to read more of Tey’s ‘Inspector Grant’ series. On starting her 1929 debut ‘The Man In The Queue’, however, I was startled to realise that I had in fact read it before. At first it was just the familiarity of the context of the murder (as the title suggests, it’s a man murdered in a theatre queue, so no spoiler there…) but then there are so many similar killings happening in all the detective stories I’ve read that it was possibly just an echo of something else. A clever and amusing piece of Reference, perhaps. But then of course, if you will excuse the pun, came the killer: Of course! This is the book with “The Dago”.

Of course anyone with even a passing interest in (detective) fiction of the period between the wars will acknowledge that such books will be at least threaded with elements of sexism, racism and antisemitism that feel abhorrent to any vaguely enlightened 21st Century reader. I’ve noticed that more recent entries in the British Library Crime Classics series feel the need to print a warning to this effect in their frontispieces, and whilst I suspect such a thing may send Daily Mail readers into a tailspin of anti-‘woke’ ranting I don’t have much of a problem with it. If it helps younger generations of readers to understand the historical context to the books and to enjoy them for all the pleasures they bring rather than immediately convulsing into knee-jerk calls for ‘cancelling’ then I’m all for it.

Yet whilst I’ve been able to wrinkle my brow wryly at some outré observations in many books and swiftly move on, there is something in Tey’s use of “The Dago” that really drags ‘The Man In The Queue’ down. There is a page early in the book where her Inspector Grant character uses the term with such unrelenting repetition that one suspects Tey must surely be using this as a literary technique to make a point about Grant’s racist character. True, the term may be used less frequently as the book progresses and Grant comes to know the individual in question on a more personal level. There is even the intriguing line in which Grant “consider[s] the man again. ‘Is he a dago?’ ‘No; a Londoner.’” Does that line suggest an inherent understanding of London (if not the UK) as being multi-cultural and post-race, even in 1929? Perhaps, and perhaps not. Is Tey making a point about casual racism, or is the casual racism just so endemic in society that she isn’t even really aware of it even as she writes it? If one were giving the benefit of doubt one might suggest the former, but I’m rather afraid that might just be an act of naive kindness.

What’s not in doubt whilst reading ‘The Man In The Queue’ is Tey’s grasp of pace and place. The book gallops along like an enthusiastic young colt, Inspector Grant endlessly grappling with the tension between instinctive flair and the unbending fact of evidential reality. The story takes him up to Tey’s native Scotland where the landscape of sea lochs and hills crossed by the loneliest and narrowest of roads is painted with a keen eye. It is through this landscape that Grant embarks on a furious Buchanesque chase of an escaped suspect (the aforementioned “Dago”, naturally) and these pages really are as thrillingly written as anything in ‘The 39 Steps’.

Yet underlying all of this cerebral unpicking of truth and the undeniable thrill of the chase there is still this nagging discomfort of “The Dago”. Having almost accidentally read the book for a second time, I’ve come to the conclusion that whilst its strengths on the whole outweigh the unpleasantness, it is extremely unlikely that I will ever read it for a third.

I might say something similar about the second instalment of the Inspector Grant series. Published in 1936, ‘A Shilling For Candles’, replaces the casual racism of “The Dago” with the deeply rooted anti-semitism of the age(s) in the form of an (of course) “Jewish song-writer”. Now in her defence, there is certainly a sense of Tey attempting to make a point about antisemitism by having the character embark on this quite extraordinary outburst:

“‘He didn’t need a reason. I’m a Jew.’ ‘Oh, come, Mr Harmer! Do you ask me to—’ ‘Oh yes, you don’t have to say it all again. I know it by heart. England’s a country of complete tolerance. She makes no difference between races. It doesn’t matter to an Englishman what creed you believe in or what the shade of your skin is.’ He blew his breath expressively through his teeth. ‘Did it ever occur to you, Inspector, that you’re the only people who’ve really kept us out? Kept us in our place. That’s your pet expression, and that describes it. No mixing. No marrying. Infra dig to marry a Jew if he has less than a hundred thousand. And not so hot then. You’re the only country in the world where a Jew is unmistakable. A German Jew looks like a German as often as not, a Russian Jew looks like a Russian. The countries have taken them into themselves. But an English Jew looks like a Jew. And you call it tolerance.’”

In the context of the times, viewed through the lens of history, that feels like quite a speech. Particularly the line about the “German Jew”… And if it seems likely that Tey might have seen the inclusion of such a speech as evidence of her own ‘tolerance’, or as an attempt to grapple with Bigger Global Issues within the context of a detective novel, from this distance it comes off as just a clumsy mis-step. The equivalent of someone today blustering about how some of their best friends are Jews, or gay, or black, or trans, or whatever.

Not that such missteps are any great reason for avoiding reading these Josephine Tey books. They may jar more than in books by some of her contemporaries, but that’s hardly a crime in and of itself. Instead we might look on those mis-steps as uncomfortable faux-pas’ as the writer seeks a means of embedding bigger themes into the body of such a throwaway, supposedly low-brow genre as the detective novel. Certainly the “Jewish Issue” suggested by Harmer’s outburst is at best an isolated, momentary aside in the thrust of ‘A Shilling For Candles’. Instead the book more effectively develops the theme of media’s place in manipulating or guiding an agreed narrative. This theme is touched on in ‘The Man In The Queue’ and of course more elegantly executed in ‘TheFranchise Affair’. The media in question in these books is specifically the tabloid newspaper, although the role of Hollywood and film is drawn into the picture in ‘A Shilling For Candles’. It is fitting then, perhaps, that ‘Shilling’ should have been filmed a year after its publication by Alfred Hitchcock as ‘Young and Innocent’ (released as ‘The Girl Was Young’ in the USA). The film is hardly a faithful adaptation of the novel, but there are some nice touches. The long crane shot that leads towards the denouement in particular is technically elegant, although modern sensibilities might struggle to focus on this over the sight of the black-faced minstrel band. They truly were different times.

Both ‘The Man In The Queue’ and ‘A Shilling For Candles’, then, whilst certainly enjoyable enough in their own right nevertheless feel strained (and not to say stained) and to a greater or lesser degree decidedly uncomfortable. They might lay the foundations for Tey’s character of Inspector Alan Grant but they feel like somewhat tentative and exploratory advances in comparison to ‘The Franchise Affair’. Of the three further Grant novels that Tey completed before her death in 1952, at least one (‘The Daughter of Time’) is regarded as one of the greatest detective novels ever written (indeed, the British Crime Writers’ Association voted it as THE greatest crime novel of all time in 1990). I look forward to discovering to what extent I might agree.

One thought on “Old Attitudes and Modern Stories

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s