Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar: ‘Who are you?’ ‘Retribution.’

I’ve been rereading The Daughter of Time for decades, so it’s odd that until now I had never read another novel by Josephine Tey. Mind you, in some respects The Daughter of Time is sui generis. And indeed all Brat Farrar has in common with it is Tey’s refreshing prose and keen eye for character.

Brat FarrarIf I were writing one of those annoying sales blurbs for Brat Farrar, I’d describe it as “The Talented Mr. Ripley meets Flambards.” I’m reading it now, in fact, because it was one of two titles I came up with as follow-ups to my book club’s reading of Ripley: I went scouting for other books connected to it in some way (which is part of our selection process), and I discovered that there were two other classic suspense titles from around the same time featuring imposters and identity theft: Brat Farrar and Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat. My book club voted for du Maurier, but I was too tempted by Brat Farrar not to order it as well.

Aside from the structural similarity of one man impersonating another, though, the two novels could hardly be more different, and of the two, much as I admired and enjoyed Highsmith’s deadpan sociopathy, it’s Brat Farrar that plays more to my personal tastes. For one thing, Brat — odd as he is — has a conscience, and so in this case a lot of the tension in the novel arises from his own discomfort with the fraud he’s perpetrating:

 He felt guilty and ill at east. Fooling [the lawyer] Mr. Sandal — with a K. C. sitting opposite you and gimletting holes in you with cynical Irish eyes — had been one thing. Fooling Mr. Sandal had been fun. But fooling Bee Ashby was another thing altogether.

Both protagonists are driven by a desire to belong, but in Brat’s case there’s a poignancy to his yearning:

He lay on the bed and thought about it. This sudden identification in an unbelonging life. He had a great desire to see this twin of his; this Ashby boy. Ashby. It was a nice name: a good English name. He would like to see the place too: this Latchetts, where his twin had grown up in belonging quiet while he had bucketed round the world, all the way from the orphanage to that moment in a London street, belonging nowhere.

 Later, when he’s well along in establishing his stolen identity, he is unexpectedly moved by a simple gesture from “his” Aunt Bee:

No one else had taken his hand in just that way. Casual but — no, not possessive. Quite a few had been possessive with him, and he had not been gratified in the least. Casual but — what? Belonging. It had something to do with belonging. The hand had taken him for granted because he belonged. It was the unthinking friendliness of a woman to one of her family. Was it because he had never “belonged” before that made that commonplace gesture into a benediction?

What Brat wants is not just to “belong” to a family but also to be part of the larger story Latchetts represents. Ashbys have lived there for generations: the estate — established but unpretentious, like its family (who will never change their traditional inn rooms for better ones when they attend the local agricultural fair) — represents the continuities and privileges of English country life. Brat is drawn into the scheme initially because he learns Latchetts is a stud farm and horses are his one love. This sets Tey up to include lots of horsiness in the novel, just for its own sake and for the fun of show-jumping and racing. But horses have histories, and thus they also embody that sense of lineage and tradition that Brat cherishes about Latchetts. He spends happy hours, in his new life as an Ashby, poring over the stud books: ironically, it’s his genuine passion for this part of the family lifestyle that makes him a better fit as master of Latchetts than Simon, the “brother” he displaced by showing up on the eve of Simon’s coming-of-age and bilking him of his inheritance.

Simon’s resentment at “Patrick’s” return from the dead is perfectly understandable, in the context of that displacement, and it stands to reason that as the one who loses the most by regaining his brother, he would be Brat’s chief antagonist — the chief skeptic about whether this young man who looks so much like him, and who knows so much about their family, their history, and their home, can actually be his long-lost brother. Surely it’s the heir who ought to represent and fight for the integrity of the line. That Simon’s resistance is both stronger and stranger than is completely accountable on those terms occurs, after a while, to Brat and to us, and thus the more sinister question arises: where was Simon when Patrick disappeared, presumably to his self-inflicted death? Could it be Simon himself who is the threat to the family and the estate? Is it possible that — what would it mean if — the interloper is a better Ashby than the one he supplants? How might Brat’s invasion become a tribute to the lost son of the house with whose life — and death — he increasingly identifies himself? “Out here in the open,” he reflects while riding the hills around Latchetts,

it had a reality that it had never had before. Up here, on that straggling path on the other side of the valley a boy had gone, so loaded with misery that this neat green English world had meant nothing to him. He had had horses like Timber, and friends and family, and a belonging-place, and it had all meant nothing to him.

For the first time in his detached existence Brat was personally aware of another’s tragedy.

“From being vaguely anti-Patrick,” he realizes, “he had become Patrick’s champion.” When he later confronts the man he holds responsible for Patrick’s death and is challenged to offer something “in return for my confidences,” he completes his transformation from invader to defender of the family:

“Who are you?”

Brat sat looking at him for a long time.

“Don’t you recognize me?” he said.

“No. Who are you?”

“Retribution,” said Brat.

But would exposure really be best — for the Ashby’s, for Latchetts, for his own hope of belonging? How can he prove his suspicions without revealing his own crime? And what’s to be done about the “sister” who arouses feelings in Brat that are not at all fraternal?

Some day the foundation of the life he was living here would give way; Simon would achieve the plan he was devising to undo him, or some incautious word of his own would bring the whole structure crashing down; and then there would be no more Eleanor.

It was not the least of his fears for the future.

Is there any hope that Brat can escape from the trap of his own making into a world where he really does belong and can be loved as himself? As Tey works her ingenious way through her story, the suspense of the crime plot becomes less interesting than the emotional and moral puzzle she’s created. And it’s beautifully fitting that the solution to that mystery, to “the problem of Brat,” turns on looking back through the records for connections and continuities that might turn a calculated deception into an unexpected restoration.

5 Comments to Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar: ‘Who are you?’ ‘Retribution.’

  1. AJ's Gravatar AJ
    November 10, 2013 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    If you liked Brat Farrar I suspect you will also enjoy The Franchise Affair and Miss Pym Disposes. Oh how I wish the BBC or PBS would dramatise these. I think Brat Farrar was done years ago but not very well.

  2. November 10, 2013 at 12:31 am | Permalink

    I was going to suggest The Franchise Affair too! It’s another one I’ve reread with pleasure. One of the things that made Brat Farrar such an interesting reading experience (besides horses) is that I was so often unsure about where to put my sympathies, or if I could trust where/with whom I was tempted to put them.

  3. Susan in TX's Gravatar Susan in TX
    November 10, 2013 at 1:46 am | Permalink

    I’ll give a second for Miss Pym Disposes – actually, it’s hard to go wrong with Tey.

  4. Dorian Stuber's Gravatar Dorian Stuber
    November 10, 2013 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    A Shilling for Candles is charming.

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