Tey’s Detective-Inspector Alan Grant has only a bit part in The Franchise Affair, but his response to the case gets at the heart of what’s at stake in this intriguing novel. It’s not a ‘whodunit’ so much as a study in character and community, and the most threatening aspect of the specific crime is its challenge to readability. What lies behind the faces we see, whether of people or of buildings or communities? Grant, as his subordinate points out, is “famous at the Yard for his good judgment of people” – The Daughter of Time turns entirely on his upset at having “mistaken one of the most notorious murderers of all time for a judge.” When things look bad for the Sharpes, the mother and daughter accused of having kidnapped and abused innocent-looking young Betty Kane, he’s annoyed to have his initial liking for them (and dislike for their accuser) seem misplaced: “Now he thinks the wool was pulled over his eyes, and he’s not taking it lightly.” That things, and people, are not as they seem is essential to the form of the crime novel, yet here that formulaic certainty is worse than the offense itself. “How is she to judge,” reflects Marion Sharpe about Betty’s mother when the whole story has come out, “if appearances can be so deceptive?”
It’s unexpected that Marion would have so much sympathy to spare, considering what she has suffered because of Betty’s accusations. After all, the hostile responses she’s dealt with have themselves been the results of people assuming the worst about her and her mother because they appear guilty — and like guilty types, living as they do in isolation, and being unconventional to the point of eccentric. That surfaces can be misleading should be the Sharpes’ first line of defense; getting to know them is precisely what wins over their handful of supporters, most notably solicitor Robert Blair, whose initial response to their appeal for his help is suspicion that they might well be up to no good:
The old woman had a fanatic’s face, if ever he saw one; and Marion Sharpe herself looked as if the stake would be her natural prop if stakes were not out of fashion.
Blair isn’t the only one to associate the Sharpes with witches: “Give these midland morons a good excuse,” cautions his fellow lawyer Ben Carley, “and they’ll witch-hunt with the best.” Suspicion does quickly turn to hostility and violence: as long as they are unable to prove their innocence, the Sharpes become victims of this predatory mentality.
To an extent, Tey is just continuing the paradoxical strategy of any Golden Age “cozy”: a seemingly peaceful English village like Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead, or King’s Abbott in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, turns out to be a festering pocket of greed, jealousy, spite, and malevolence. The pastoral tranquility of the setting is a façade; the story’s central crime is not an aberration but an eruption, and the restored calm can only ever feel precarious, so certain are we that we’ll be back again for the next installment. Tey cares so little for the puzzle aspects of the story, though, that this formulaic oddity of the setting moves from background to foreground. The charm of the classic English town is compromised by its revealed dark side. “Don’t worry, sir,” a police officer says to Robert, who’s worried about the Sharpes’ safety; “Nothing’s going to happen to them. This is England, after all.” It turns out that he’s right about that last point, just not about what it means. The overall effect is not at all the nostalgic one often associated with “cozies”: just as Robert feels a mixture of pleasure and despair at the tranquil continuities of his own life before the Franchise affair, we’re prompted, surely, to wonder if this is a world that should be preserved or destroyed, policed or subverted.
One of the most unnerving aspects of the novel for me was that Betty Kane’s mean-spirited deception made all our “good guys” so angry that they started sounding an awful lot like bad guys. “An attractive face, on the whole,” Robert says to his cousin as they contemplate Betty’s photo. “What do you make of it?” “What I should like to make of it,” is the reply, “with slow venom, ‘would be a very nasty mess.’” As Robert prepares to face her in court, he declares his intention to “undress her in public . . . to strip her of every rag of pretence, in open court, so that everyone will see her for what she is.” He’s outraged that she might get away with her scheme and “go on being the centre of an adoring family”: “the once easy-going Robert grew homicidal at the thought.” When the truth comes out, and it’s revealed that whatever her other lies, her bruises are real, the general attitude seems to be that a beating was no worse than she deserved, and nobody seems shocked at the remark that “it was a pity her mother hadn’t done the same thing ten years ago.” Nobody, for that matter, censures the grown — and married — man who makes this statement for having an affair with a fifteen-year-old girl.
Is she really so appalling? At what point does she, like the Sharpes, slip from accused to victim? What threat does she really represent that the jury can reach a unanimous verdict without even hearing the remainder of the case (or retiring to discuss the evidence) and it’s greeted as justice? She’s shunned so completely that we never even find out what happens to her. Guilty though she certainly is, is she also a scapegoat, a focal point for disruptive forces that the community abhors and wishes to banish? Is it she who is really the witch, or some kind of shape-shifter, someone who has the terrifying capacity to make guilt look like innocence? Is it her real crime to embody and thus expose the deceptive safety of the world they all live in, making explicit a truth they all prefer to deny? “She can never again take a step onto green grass,” Marion says sympathetically of Betty’s mother, “without wondering if it is a bog.” But it wasn’t Betty who set The Franchise on fire and watched, face “alive with gloating,” as it burned to the ground.