Maybe I’m getting sensitive in my old age, but I think Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair is the most appalling novel I’ve read since my ill-advised foray into Clive Barker. And Barker was at least trying to be appalling. Tey delivers a morality tale that she expects all right-thinking people to agree with, which I suppose is true if you think all right-thinking people believe in eugenics.
The story concerns a small-town English lawyer who decides to defend a middle-aged woman and her mother, whom a 15-year-old girl claims imprisoned and beat her for almost a month. The press and much popular opinion sides with the girl, but the lawyer thinks it’s just a cover story for her disappearance. (The curious resemblance to the Tawana Brawley case is a coincidence, since that happened 40 years after the book was written.)
The girl is an adopted war orphan, which serves Tey’s central theme: criminals are born, not made. Her adoptive family consists of nice, decent people who love her; but when the lawyer inquires after her biological parents, he learns her mother was a selfish trollop who essentially abandoned her daughter. The girl, then committed her crime simply because she’s “her mother’s daughter,” and no other reason.
Much of the book’s philosophy comes from the mouth of another lawyer.
“Your true criminal,” he remembered Kevin saying one night, after a long discussion on penal reform, “has two unvarying characteristics, and it is these two characteristics that make him a criminal. Monstrous vanity and colossal selfishness. And they are both as integral, as ineradicable, as the texture of the skin. You might as well talk of ‘reforming’ the colour of one’s eyes.”
… Kevin’s idea of prison reform, Robert remembered, was deportation to a penal colony. An island community where everyone worked hard. This was not a reform for the benefit of prionsers. It would be a nicer life for the warders, Kevin said; and would leave more room in this crowded island for good citizens’ houses and gardens; and since most criminals hated hard work more than they hated anything in this world, it would be a better deterrent than the present plan which, in Kevin’s estimation, was no more punitive than a third-rate public school.
The opposite pole to this view is presented in the character of a bishop, who never appears but is endlessly bad-mouthed by the other characters, who spends much of his time arguing that criminals are products of an unjust society. But Tey’s genetic determinism leaves no possibility of an unjust society, as this comment from the younger of the two defendants indicates:
“The Saxons have the two qualities that I value most in this world. Two qualities that explain why they have inherited the earth. Kindness and dependability — or tolerance and responsibility, if you prefer the terms. Two qualities the Celt never had; which is why the Irish have inherited nothing but squabbles.”
Hail Britannia, Britannia rules the waves.
Needless to say, the girl doesn’t get any slack on account of her young age. She was born a monster, so there is no question of her being old enough to be morally responsible. In fact, the sadistic hatred that Tey conveys toward her is quite chilling, especially the way the lawyer announces his intention not just to throw doubt her story, but “undress her in court.”
My irritation at this book was no doubt increased by the fact that last month I read a much better book on similar themes: P.D. James’ Innocent Blood. It also centers around an adopted teenage girl with criminal parents — in this case much worse, in fact, since they were convicted of raping and murdering a little girl. When 18-year-old Philippa obtains her birth records, her pedophile father has died in prison, but her mother is about to be released on parole.
In some ways James’ and Tey’s views are similar, since they are both socially conservative Brits. (The mystery genre lends itself to conservatism, after all.) In fact, James was one of the judges for that prize that Telford almost won, and a lot of Telford’s critiques of modern liberal society turn up in this book. Like Tey, she also doesn’t go for simplistic victims-of-society explanations of crime (as embodied by Philippa’s adoptive father, a Marxist sociologist). But what separates the two authors is that James has thoroughly imbibed a Christian view of good and evil, to which Tey only pays lip service.
Genetics do matter in Innocent Blood. When Philippa meets her mother she recognizes her at once as family. She has many of her mother’s traits, both good and bad: intelligence, love of reading, confidence, willfulness, coldness. But James drops many broad hints that Philippa’s quest to “find herself”, which leads her to accept her mother even as a murderess, is ultimately not going to be satisfied in knowing her bloodlines. She is her mother’s daughter, but she is principally a child of God.
But what really separates Tey from James is that James believes, in her bones, in original sin. Tey clearly divides the world into The Good Sort and The Bad Sort, and invites the readers’ sympathy over the wronged women and our righteous triumph at the defeat of evil. But no one is really innocent in James’ universe. (The title, I expect, is meant partly in irony.) In addition to Philippa’s story, we follow the murdered girl’s father, who tracks the murderess in search of revenge. James does an impressive job of holding all these characters at once in our sympathy, while also showing their many flaws, without ever letting the reader feel superior.
The one really “good” character is the mother’s probation officer, who appears briefly bringing an African violet to brighten up the murderess’ dingy apartment. James characterizes his attitude as (quoting from memory here), “We’re all in this catastrophe together, so there’s no point in recriminations or regrets. The only thing for it is to treat each other with love.” I can just imagine Tey fulminating in righteous fury.
Innocent Blood is not a perfect book; the ending, in particular, started to feel more like parable than realism, which didn’t really go with the tone. But it’s a welcome tonic for the Tey book, and the one I hope I’ll hold longer in memory.