Great Classic Mysteries To Discuss and Enjoy

May 22, 2007 at 1:04 am (Book clubs, Mystery fiction)

I have led lively discussions of two novels by Josephine Tey: BRAT FARRAR and THE FRANCHISE AFFAIR. The first, with its premise of a clever (and sinister) impersonation and its wonderful depiction of postwar English country life, is one of my all time favorites, and unlike most mysteries – indeed, unlike many novels in general! – it climaxes with a truly agonizing moral dilemma.

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I became interested in THE FRANCHISE AFFAIR as a result of a very bare-bones description of its plot. It went something like this (The following is actually from the CROWN CRIME COMPANION): “A young lawyer with a comfortable civil practice is suddenly asked to defend two women, a mother and a daughter, who have been accused by a teen-age girl of imprisoning her and abusing her over a period of two weeks.” I guess I was just plain intrigued by what seems to me a unique scenario for a crime novel. After I had read it and began looking for some commentary, I discovered that Tey had drawn her plot idea from two quite notorious historical crimes. The first involves one Elizabeth Brownrigg and her son and took place in the 1760’s. Elizabeth Brownrigg took in several young girls from the workhouse to be servants in her home. At first, she was kind to them, but gradually she began to show her true colors by beating them, starving them, and committing various other depredations, with the enthusiastic help of her son. (Her dullard of a husband simply stood by passively while all this was going on.) Eventually, one of her pathetic victims died of injuries inflicted on her, and the entire Brownrigg family was accused of murder. Only Elizabeth was convicted. On the day of her hanging, the executioner was forced to act quickly, as an angry mob stood ready to tear her limb from limb.

The other case concerns Elizabeth Canning, who, in 1753, disappeared following a visit to her aunt and uncle in Whitechapel. Four weeks later, she reappeared at her mother’s house, gaunt, dirty, dressed in rags, and speechless. When she could finally talk, she had an accusation ready: she claimed that three women had offered her new clothing if she would agree to go into service in what was apparently a brothel. When she refused, she claimed, the women stole the clothes she had on, shoved her into a hayloft, and imprisoned her for three weeks, barely feeding her enough to survive on. The two women were identified by Canning and tried for the crimes she had described. One was sentenced to hang, but was pardoned by the Lord Mayor. By doing this, he cast doubt on Canning’s story. Eventually sufficient doubt was cast so that she was tried and convicted for perjury. An interesting afterward to this story is that she was condemned to be deported to America. (Who knew this was being done? We know about Australia…) Since she still had her supporters, they saw to it that she was sent not via convict ship but on a regular transport and with money in her hands to boot. She settled in Wethersfield, Connecticut, and was soon married there. (Tey makes an oblique reference to the Canning case in Chapter Eight.)

Both criminal incidents I have just described involve innocent individuals deliberately made to suffer in order further the ends of others, who were not only far from innocent themselves, but – at least in the case of the Brownrigg mother and son – were downright evil. One distinguishing characteristic of Tey’s detective novels is that she tends to extend the range of the suffering of the victims beyond what is usually expected in such works. Most important, these trials of the innocent raise important questions concerning the nature of a world in which the innocents suffer so much and so regularly. A pat resolution, in which happiness is allocated to the innocent and just punishment inflicted on the guilty, is simply not possible in the fictional world inhabited by Tey’s characters, because it would fly in the face of the reality which she has so vividly and convincingly depicted throughout the novel.

FRANCHISE, it seems to me, is actually about a great many things. It is about the behavior of certain groups or classes of people who, when confronted by extraordinary circumstances, revert to behavior that could almost be characterized as primitive. I am thinking in particular of the likening of the Sharpe women to witches. (One also thinks of Shirley Jackson’s classic short story, “The Lottery.”) Among other things, this novel is about the extreme difficulty of truly knowing our fellow human beings. It is about resourcefulness and kindness emanating from unexpected places, and cruelty and condemnation coming from those same places. It is about that most admirable of qualities, courage. It is about the earning of admiration and respect, which can, in some cases, lead to love.

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Two other classics I’d like to recommend for discussion are THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE by Mary Roberts Rinehart and DEATH IN A WHITE TIE by Ngaio Marsh. STAIRCASE is more psychological suspense than traditional mystery. Although it was written in 1908 (!!), it is still an entertaining read, working really well as a novel of manners in its depiction of America in the early years of the 20th century. WHITE TIE is set in the 1930’s in London during the “season;” it reminded me a bit of Jane Austen, what with all the jockeying for position by anxious mothers, young debutantes and would-be suitors. This novel is more literary than STAIRCASE, possessing more depth and breadth – not to mention length! – and reads beautifully, thanks to Dame Ngaio’s graceful prose.

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I also had good luck with a discussion of STRONG POISON by Dorothy L. Sayers. This particular Lord Peter Wimsey novel has it all – a ripping good plot, lots of Sayers’s trademark wit, and a host of entertaining secondary characters. I especially loved Blindfold Bill, who was a thief until he was caught red handed by Lord Peter while trying to crack a safe. (He subsequently got religion, but continued to make his skills available to Lord Peter “in a good cause.”) Though I am exceedingly fond of POISON, I don’t consider it to be the masterpiece in the series. In my estimation, that honor is shared by GAUDY NIGHT and THE NINE TAILORS. Both would be good for discussion, but challenging, too. With its long exposition on the art (science?) of campanology, TAILORS can be difficult to get into. (Listening to the recorded book helps.) As for GAUDY, it’s 500 pages long in the paperback edition, but I was amazed when I read it for the first time a couple of years ago, at how contemporary it felt; Sayers tackles head on the question of whether a woman can have both a family and a satisfying intellectual or professional life, and still do justice to both.


  1. Carol H. said,

    Every now and then I’ve come across reference to minor criminals being sent to Virginia. Unless my memory fails me, Moll Flanders was among them. But it’s certainly not in any American history books I’ve taught from or read. Interesting that Australians have come to terms with this part of their history, but Americans have tried to wipe it out of ours.

  2. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Lawrence Block Thunder Bay – William Kent Krueger The Demon of Dakar – Kjell Eriksson Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair – Josephine Tey The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell […]

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