Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey: B+

bratfarrarFrom the back cover:
In this surprising tale of mystery and suspense, a stranger enters the inner sanctum of the Ashby family posing as Patrick Ashby, the heir to the family’s sizable fortune. The stranger, Brat Farrar, has been carefully coached on Patrick’s mannerisms, appearance, and every significant detail of Patrick’s early life, up to his thirteenth year when he disappeared and was thought to have drowned himself. It seems as if Brat is going to pull off this most incredible deception until old secrets emerge that jeopardize the imposter’s plan and his life. Culminating in a final terrible moment when all is revealed, Brat Farrar is a precarious adventure that grips the reader early and firmly and then holds on until the explosive conclusion.

Brat Farrar wasn’t looking to con anyone when he returned to England after a long absence. But after bumping into a stranger who notes his strong resemblance to a presumed-dead heir, and tempted by the prospect of a life among horses (his passion), he ends up impersonating Patrick Ashby, who is about to turn 21 and formally inherit the Ashby family estate. After many lessons, he takes his place among the family and is eventually able to win them over, all except Simon, the younger twin brother deprived of the inheritance by the return of “Patrick.”

It’s rather nice to read a story about an imposter where he is actually the protagonist and not an enigma. Brat is a very likable character who’s had a hard life and can be forgiven for being swept up in the promise of a peaceful and comfortable existence surrounded by horses. I also really love the Ashby family, particularly Aunt Bea and Eleanor, and how genuinely Brat comes to love them and they him. The best parts of the novel describe the growing warmth and affection Brat feels for these people; their goodness makes him feel that much worse for deceiving them.

The main problem with Brat Farrar is that I guessed almost immediately what had happened to Patrick and who was responsible. The wait for my suspicions to be proved correct was definitely pleasant, since the scenery and characters are so nice, but the ending was an anticlimactic one and I think Tey neglected to reveal some of the realizations Brat made about the crime.

All in all, I liked the book very much. Predictable? Sure, but that didn’t really put much of a damper on my enjoyment.

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey: A

daughtertimeFrom the back cover:
Confined to a hospital bed, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Grant is engrossed with a portrait of Richard III. How is it possible, he wonders, that such a sensitive-appearing soul could have been the odious villain, the Wicked Uncle responsible for the murder of his own nephews to secure the British crown for himself? Grant reconsiders 500-year-old evidence and brilliantly arrives at a compelling new answer to one of the most intriguing mysteries in history: who really murdered the Princes in the Tower.

“For truth is rightly named the daughter of time, not of authority.” – Sir Francis Bacon

After an embarrassing accident, Inspector Grant faces an extended convalescence in a hospital bed. Helpfully minded friends have dropped off some novels, but they hold no appeal. It’s only when Grant’s friend Marta, knowing his interest in faces, brings by a selection of historical portraits that the irksome prickles of boredom begin to fade. Particularly captivating is the portrait of Richard III, whose sensitive expression speaks more of illness and suffering than the villainy for which he is chiefly remembered. His police instincts roused, and together with a research assistant (also supplied by Marta) to do the necessary leg work, Grant sets about proving whether Richard III really did murder his nephews as history claims.

Ever since reading Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, I’ve had an interest in Richard III and, if pressed, would count myself among those who believe in his innocence. The Daughter of Time comes to the same conclusion, eschewing the hearsay accounts that fill the history books—often penned by historians from the Tudor years who did not like to write too favorably about the Plantagenets—in favor of contemporary sources and, when that isn’t available, a basic understanding of human nature. Taking it one step further, Grant examines the question of who had the most to gain by the princes’ deaths, and ends up making the case that Henry VII was ultimately responsible.

The wealth of historical information required to make these points is presented in a way that’s anything but dry; on the contrary, I found it fascinating. What makes The Daughter of Time so great, though, is that the storyline in the present is also fun. In what other novel does the protagonist spend the whole of the book confined to bed, his mind challenged and engaged but his body immobile? Anyone who ventures into Grant’s room is liable to be subjected to questioning on the topic of Richard III, and indeed, it’s a member of the hospital staff whose change in opinion regarding the much-maligned monarch is the first triumph of the inspector’s efforts.

Now that I’ve read something so pro-Richard, I feel the need to achieve a balanced view by reading an account that casts him as the murderer. Look, therefore, for a review of Alison Weir’s The Princes in the Tower in the near future.

To Love and Be Wise by Josephine Tey: B-

toloveandbewiseFrom the back cover:
The advent of Leslie Searle was not a particularly fortunate happening for the village of Salcott St Mary. The American photographer possessed an almost inhuman beauty, and his presence aroused a variety of violent emotions in the small community. Then, one spring night, he disappeared close to the river. A case of missing, presumed drowned, one would assume. When Detective Inspector Grant is sent to the village, he is not short of murder suspects. But a far greater puzzle confronts him: Leslie Searle has vanished like someone performing the Indian rope trick in an English meadow…

To Love and Be Wise takes place in an isolated village called Salcott St Mary, in which something of a celebrity enclave has sprung up. An American photographer, Leslie Searle, is introduced into this society and quickly ruffles some feathers by perpetrating a few snubs and getting on too well with a woman who’s already engaged to be married to a rather self-important BBC commentator. When Searle goes missing after a public argument with said BBC chap, Inspector Grant is called in to investigate.

After the genuine enjoyment offered by The Franchise Affair, the previous book in Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant series, this next installment comes as something of a disappointment. The biggest problem I have with it is that, in places, it can be very, very dull. It takes quite some time for the characters to become distinct and longer still for Searle to finally disappear. Eventually, it does grow somewhat more interesting, and though I had suspected something like the solution, I hadn’t expected it in quite the right way.

My favorite segments are actually those in which Grant consults with his actress friend, Marta, and values both her insights as well as her cool head in an emergency. It reminded me a little bit of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane—not that the characters are at all similar, but it’s the same idea of the contented bachelor detective finally finding a woman who captivates him not with her beauty but with her wits. I hope we see Marta again!

All in all, I found the book to be a pleasant enough diversion. It’s certainly not going to show up on anyone’s Top 100 or even Top 500 list of the best mystery novels, but it’s far from the worst I’ve read.

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey: B

From the back cover:
Leys Physical Training College was famous for its excellent discipline and Miss Lucy Pym was pleased and flattered to be invited to give a psychology lecture there. But she had to admit that the health and vibrant beauty of the students made her feel just a little inadequate. Then there was a nasty accident—and suddenly Miss Pym was forced to apply her agile intellect to the unpleasant fact that among all those impressively healthy bodies someone had a very sick mind…

Miss Lucy Pym, after receiving a legacy from a relative, has retired from her life of teaching and become somewhat of a lay expert on psychology. Having written a surprisingly successful book on the topic, she’s been regularly giving lectures. One of Lucy’s former schoolmates, now principal of Leys Physical Training College, invites Lucy to come and speak to her students. The first two-thirds of the book is Lucy getting to know the students and the staff, and sets up the “nasty accident” that is to come.

Like The Franchise Affair before it, Miss Pym Disposes begins quite charmingly but becomes rather improbable toward the end. The book is almost wholly populated by female characters, and to see a lot of girls bustling about, learning medical skills as well as honing their own physical prowess reminded me a bit of the Sue Barton series of books. Some mildly racist attitudes and comments mar this section, and Lucy’s waffling over what to do about a cheating student gets a bit annoying, but overall it’s pleasant fun.

After a certain point, the outcome becomes a bit predictable. The cheating student is undeservedly given a prime post at a distinguished girls’ school that everyone had assumed would go to another girl, and is eventually mortally injured by a bit of gymnastic equipment. I found it quite easy to peg the culprit, despite Tey’s attempts at subterfuge. The improbable elements begin with what Miss Pym, a “feeble waverer,” does with an important bit of evidence, and also the too-convenient testimony of a couple of nearby residents at the inquest.

Overall, I liked this less well than The Franchise Affair and found it to have some of the problems I noted in the first two Inspector Grant books (racism, convenient plot developments). It was, however, written earlier, so I remain optimistic. I’ve now read four of Tey’s eight mysteries, and still plan to complete the lot.

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey: A-

Book description
The Franchise Affair resembles some of the best work of Poe in its introduction of an apparently inhuman evil in an otherwise sedate country setting. Robert Blair, a lawyer who prides himself on his ability to avoid work of any significance, is interrupted one evening by a phone call from Marion Sharpe. Ms. Sharpe and her mother live in a run-down estate known as the Franchise, and their lives drew little attention until Betty Kane charged them with an unthinkable crime. Ms. Kane, having disappeared for a month, now says that she was held captive in the attic of the Franchise during her entire absence.

While her story seems absurd, her recollection of minute details about the interior of the house sway even Scotland Yard. Blair—chosen by Ms. Sharpe for her defense because, as she says, he is “someone of my own sort”—must dust off his neurons and undertake some serious sleuthing if his client is to beat these serious charges. As with all fine mysteries, one has the sense of being in a sea of clues with a solution just out of reach.

After reading the first two Inspector Grant mysteries, I had trouble believing that the same author could produce The Daughter of Time, which I’ve heard referred to as a classic of the mystery genre. I am happy to say that The Franchise Affair has cured me of my doubts. While not perfect, it is still so much better than its predecessors that I am heartened.

Told from the point of view of humble country lawyer Robert Blair, The Franchise Affair is unusual in a couple of ways. For one, the crime in question is not murder. An innocent-looking schoolgirl accuses a couple of solitary women of holding her captive, and it’s up to Blair to investigate and help mount a defense. Also, Inspector Grant barely appears. As the book is at least nominally classed as an entry in the Inspector Grant series, I find it a bit odd that the one I like best so far features the title detective so little.

The Franchise Affair is full of likable characters. Blair has grown tired of his quiet, easy life, and is unexpectedly stimulated by the Sharpes’ case. He also grows very much to like the younger Miss Sharpe, an independent, warm, and witty woman. I am kind of a sucker for middle-aged romance, so I enjoyed how he went from thinking of her as Miss Sharpe, to Marion, and then to how he would do this or that once he had married her. Especially great are all of the qualities he likes her for, and that she isn’t forced to compromise on those qualities in the end. She also has a fun, feisty mother who proves a dab hand at giving betting tips for horse racing.

I also like the writing style. At times, it feels surprisingly modern for something written in 1948. It’s full of amusing turns of phrase and a gently ironic tone. I snickered several times, the first occasion being the third sentence, which was a good sign.

The end is not quite as good as the rest, as some improbable and very dramatic events occur. The way the trial plays out also seems a bit… unorthodox to me. It was around this point where I began to be reminded of watching an old movie, so I was compelled to look it up and, sure enough, this novel was made into a movie in 1951. Interesting factoid for Doctor Who fans: one of the workers at the garage where Blair keeps his car was played by Patrick Troughton.

On the whole, I found The Franchise Affair to be charming and enjoyable. Because of its nature, it would work quite well as a stand-alone, but has also restored my hopes for the quality of the others in the series.

A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey: B-

From the back cover:
On a clear, sunny morning on the southern coast of England, the screaming gulls announce the location of a ghastly deed. The body of famous screen actress Christine Clay is found lying limp on the beach. Was it an accidental death, or murder? For Scotland Yard’s Inspector Grant, the case becomes a nightmare of too many clues and too many motives, as the world is full of people who wanted the movie star dead.

This really isn’t a big improvement over the last one. Coincidence still trumps actual investigation as a method for discovering facts. An example is the plucky girl who, convinced of someone’s innocence, goes off in search of an overcoat that will prove it. And just so happens to run into a lorry driver (at the first place she stops to inquire) who gave a lift to an itinerant china mender who’s well-known for nicking overcoats and boots. And whaddaya know, he leads her to the coat.

Two more holdovers from the first novel are the foreigner bashing (though less prevalent this time) and the idea of an actress so radiant that she outshines her leading men. The mystery itself is okay, I guess, though nothing really great. A couple of new characters are fun, though. I wouldn’t mind seeing Erica (the aforementioned plucky girl) again and crime reporter “Jammy” Hopkins is also a fairly interesting addition.

Another of Tey’s Inspector Grant mysteries, The Daughter of Time, has been much praised, but right now I’m having a little difficulty reconciling these first two books with something of such (alleged) calibre.

The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey: B-

From the back cover:
When they found the stranger stabbed to death in the queue outside the theatre, it was his complete lack of identity which struck everyone as very odd. The labels on his clothes were missing and nobody came forward to claim him. Inspector Grant of the CID has no choice but to travel deep into the theatrical world in his efforts to build up a picture of the nameless man. As the picture builds, Grant must cast his net ever wider as the dead man and the murderer slowly give up their secrets.

Luck and fingerprints. That’s how Grant seemed to operate. Oh, and much theorizing in advance of the facts with a dash of foreigner-bashing thrown in for good measure.

As the case progressed along by a series of coincidences, I was initially annoyed; it really didn’t make for much of a story. Grant had no clue there was a witness until one showed up to talk to him. And then he just so happened to run into a man fitting the description given by the witness while walking down a London street one evening. There wasn’t much delving into character.

By the end, though, it seemed more like Tey was doing this on purpose to thwart the image of the omniscient detective so prevalent in crime literature of this period. Many, if not most, of Grant’s hunches and assumptions were proven incorrect. He failed to think of things that could have significant bearing upon the case. In fact, he did not actually solve it, though there is closure on the point. For the novelty of that alone, even if the mystery itself wasn’t that great, I enjoyed the book.