“The first dark germ of The Little Stranger, however, came to me from another genre entirely. The book has its origins in my response to a detective novel from 1948: The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey, a novel I first read more than a decade ago, and which has fascinated and troubled me, in about equal measures, ever since.”
Josephine Tey’s novels have been sitting on my shelves for a while now, but it was Sarah Waters who finally make me pick this one up. I’m very glad that she did.
The story opens in a solicitor’s office in a quiet country town. The scene is set perfectly. Robert Blair’s usual business is conveyancing, wills and investments but, just as he is rising to leave the office, he receives a telephone call that will lead him to a very different case.
He is summoned to The Franchise, a large house behind a high wall on the edge of town. Marion Sharpe lives there with her mother in genteel poverty. The story he hears there is extraordinary.
Betty Kane had just left school. One day, she says, she missed the bus home from town. She accepted a lift from two ladies in a car. And those two women kidnapped her and kept her prisoner to act as their servant. Because they couldn’t find anybody willing to work in their big house on the edge of town. She was locked up, beaten and kept hungry to make her comply. Finally she found a locked door and made her escape.
The describes the Sharpes, their car, details of their home perfectly.
They are astounded, and insist that they have never seen the girl before. Robert believes them. But how does she know so much. How can he prove that she wasn’t there?
So begins an extraordinary mystery. A crime without a body, without a single drop of blood shed.
Little facts emerge and a picture builds and changes. Progress is slow, and yet a fairly unremarkable country solicitor holds the attention.
Why? Well Josephine Tey can certainly write. All of her characters are distinctive beautifully drawn, her story-telling is assured, her plotting is clever, and she paints a clear picture of a time and place.
The social changes that followed the war are illuminated. The tabloid press take a keen interest. And their neighbours are eager that the women that they perceive to be wicked criminals are punished. There is much food for thought, with every element judged and balanced perfectly.
The story culminates in a brilliant court room scene. The truth is revealed. And followed by a wonderful observation.
It was the right conclusion to a wonderful story. It won’t be too long until Josephine Tey’s other books come off the shelf.