By Josephine Tey
Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1997, New York, pp 286
Reviewed by Anisha Shekhar Mukherji
I read my first Tey when I was in middle school.
I discovered it while rummaging in the steel trunks that housed my father’s collection of books in the large box-room of a rambling Army bungalow. I was at a loose end at that time. It was probably too hot to go outside to play or to cycle down to the library. The cover of the book, which has been lost since, arrested my search. It was a vivid shade of green that just escaped being lurid. I enjoyed it thoroughly, especially impressed by the matter-of-fact enterprise of the seventeen year old heroine. Having read it, I put it back in the trunk and moved on to other books. I rediscovered A Shilling for Candles many years later, found it just as riveting, and promptly appropriated my father’s copy. I also carried it with me when I got married. Snehanshu liked it as much as I did.
But this review is not about that book.
It just explains how I got to the other Teys thanks to Snehanshu (who combines the soul of a researcher with the qualities of a collector and has the tenacity of a terrier when it comes to murder mysteries) and friends in London and Pennsylvania who hunted them out in second-hand book shops and over the internet. For the past year or so, the new editions of the Tey mysteries are available in India as well, which means we have been able to gift them to friends and introduce them to this rare author. But choosing my favourite Josephine Tey to gift – or to review – is not an easy task.
Each Tey is so very good and so very different from the others. Some feature the fastidious Inspector Alan Grant, who appears in A Shilling for Candles – her first murder mystery I read. Others have amateurs or professional lady detectives. Even the Inspector Grant books vary widely – in The Daughter of Time, for instance, he sets out to unravel the difference between the appearance and the reputation of Richard the Hunchback. This is the King Richard III reviled in conventional accounts of English history as ‘the author of the most revolting crime in history’ – the murder of two young Princes, his nephews, in the Tower of London. As a piece of historical detection it is quite masterly, laying bare both the possibilities and the pitfalls of the process of research, and for a time I used it for my lectures on Research Paper to post-graduates students of Industrial Design and Architecture.
But finally (after utilising this exercise of reviewing crime fiction for our blog as an excuse to re-read her output) I decided that the best Tey is probably Brat Farrar. Brat Farrar is very English – in its summarily terse dismissal of Scottish nationalism; its green images of turf and beech; its heartfelt empathy for horses and horse-men and women. It is a celebration of the English way of life, or a certain English way of life as lived in a small village, evenly paced and ordered by the regular rhythm of the Rector and the rules of the countryside despite galloping forces of change. And though it may seem too parochial and provincial at times, it is done with such measured skill that it manages to delight even those who may not have undue sympathy with, or experience of, such a way of life.
The protagonist – also Brat Farrar – is very English too, in his remarkable reticence of speech, his underplaying of emotions, and his love of horses. Tey’s skill lies in her ability to invest, within this familiar and reassuring cast of English features and families, an urgent undercurrent of the unfamiliar; to spring the sinister in the midst of the serene. Nothing is quite what it seems. The intruder is not really an intruder; the family is not really all familial; the deaths or near deaths are not really murders or attempted murders. Or are they?
To readers who are architects, the ease with which Tey summons up the air of a place, the clarity with which buildings and their landscape comes alive, in detail and in setting, is a special joy. Consider these lines: ‘Across the valley, the long white house of Clare stood in its park, gracious as a vicerine, but there were no Ledinghams there now’. Or this: ‘She turned in at the south porch of the church and found the great oak door still unlocked. The light of the sunset flooded the grey vault with warmth, and the whole building held peace as a cup holds water.’ The spaces in Tey’s landscape are not impersonal things, but are distilled into distinct and loved features, put across in prose with the evocation of poetry: ‘…and there in the too bright gusty sunlight stood Latchetts, very quiet, very friendly, very sure of itself…It stood there in its grasslands, undecorated and self-sufficient; needing no garden for its enhancement. The green of the small park flowered at its heart into the house itself, and any other flowering would have been redundant.’
The pace of the story, despite its measured tone and detail is surprisingly swift. It may not be fanciful to compare the book itself to, like the tight-rope events Brat lets himself into and anticipates, ‘a breath-taking ride; a unique heart-stopping ride’. Controlled by an expert hand, the story sometimes clears several decades with a leap, its regular beat often breaking into a breathless canter, on occasion rearing up – but always on course with the unexpected. The inexplicable disappearance and apparent death of one of the Ashbys, eight years before Brat Farrar arrives on the scene, is the background to this business and backdrop of horses.
Horses are, indeed, the special interest of Brat Farrar as well as the entire Ashby family, whose house and stud-farm he moves into with the planned deliberation of not “a blackmailer” or “a suppliant”, but “an invader”. In perhaps Tey’s most intimate examination of what moves the human heart and mind, what makes it flower and what makes it fester, the tale moves back and forth between the memories of Brat Farrar, the interloper, and of Beatrice Ashby or Aunt Bee, the insider around whom the Ashby family turns. Between the different dimensions of England, America and England again; between casual and heated conversations of the family with each other and with Brat; between the time when the eldest Ashby boy disappears without a trace and the time that he is resurrected through the persona of Brat Farrar.
Tey does not hide the workings of the minds of the two main characters in the story; yet the reader while being privy to the innermost thoughts of Aunt Bee and Brat, is still confounded by what appears to be the truth. In his impersonation of Patrick, the eldest Ashby boy, believed to have been long dead, Brat manages to convince the family and even the reader of his connection with the Ashbys. Even when we know that Brat is an interloper, we are beguiled into believing that maybe he isn’t. The mystery of who Brat is, is as tantalising as the question of what actually happened to Patrick. And when I re-read the book, knowing full well the answers to both these questions, the telling of the tale is so beautifully crafted and spun, that it still manages to keep me gripped. Finally, then, Brat Farrar is more than just a murder mystery. Even when you know ‘whodunit’, it is still fascinating.
For those of you who are unable or unwilling to get a copy of the book, the good news is that all Tey’s books are available on Project Gutenberg Australia. Here’s the link to Brat Farrar: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks08/0800471.txt