RogerBW's Blog

Brat Farrar, Josephine Tey 03 February 2015

1949 mystery. Simon Ashby is about to come of age and inherit the family estate Latchetts (sadly fallen, but still worth a bit). Eight years ago, after the sudden death of their parents, his older twin Patrick committed suicide, or so everyone thought; but now someone claiming to be Patrick has turned up to take over again.

But that is only a small part of what the story is about, at least from the reader's point of view. We meet Brat, the presumptive Patrick, before he's introduced to the Ashby family, and it's quite explicit that he's not the real thing; he was left on the steps of an orphanage as a baby and has made his own way in the world, but meets a disreputable cousin of the family who spots his resemblance to the missing brother and proposes to coach him in details of the young Patrick's life in return for a cut of the family money. A lesser author would make the truth of his claim the mystery, but Tey had done that a year earlier in The Franchise Affair; instead, the majority of the book is told through Brat's eyes, as he tries to reconcile his fraudulent actions with the well-being of these people he's rather come to like.

And to solve the real mystery, which is: why was Simon so worried when he first showed up, but then seemed to settle down once they'd met? And what really happened to Patrick, who didn't seem the type either to kill himself or to run away? Brat wants to know, but he can't very well make a proper investigation of his own "running away to sea" without revealing his real identity. Even once he knows what's happened, can he reveal himself, and destroy the pleasure the family's got from Patrick's reappearance?

Although there certainly is a mystery to be solved here, the main point of the book is the characters. Brat is the principal, but a great deal of time is spent with Aunt Bee, who's been acting as the children's guardian since the Ashby parents died, and who's clearly mostly responsible for having turned the failing estate into a moderately profitable stables. Simon himself is deliberately left a bit of a cipher until the end, but he's at least a consistent cipher, for all he appears not to be. The younger children get a little less time, but Eleanor is clearly getting set to make a go of the stables since Simon hasn't much interest in them, while the splendid Jane and the less-splendid Ruth provide amusing colour. Even more minor characters are the excellent rector George Peck, his former social-butterfly wife, and Uncle Charles, who's more of a deus ex machina than is perhaps ideal but is still a wonderfully practical fellow. All these people are clearly observed, and even small details like table-manners feel accurate and familiar.

I did sometimes find myself wondering just when the book was meant to be set. There are occasional references to the War (someone was bombed in the Blitz), but the atmosphere of eight years ago (when the parents died in an aircraft accident, and when Brat went to sea and worked his way across Europe and then to America) seems more like the earlier 1930s than like 1940. And there isn't much of a feeling of rationing or post-war poverty in the "present day". I rather suspect that this book was at least partly written during the war, set in the Britain that still more or less existed before the war began, and had a few insertions made later to bring it up to date. But the setting is really a rural England that never quite was anyway, so it's not surprising that it shouldn't entirely fit. (The one caveat I'd give a modern reader is that, if you can't cope with a book where the rural minor gentry and their way of life are unquestionedly the best thing going, you probably won't enjoy this. But if you feel that way you probably don't read much old fiction anyway.)

This is a properly-structured mystery: there's the traditional "stop reading now" point, where Brat is reported as telling a confidant exactly what the solution is, but Tey doesn't yet lay it out for the reader, and this is a sign that the reader should by now have worked it out for himself (or at least should stop until he has). It's certainly possible to work things out and get the intellectual satisfaction of having solved the puzzle; if anything the puzzle's rather too easy, with only one real candidate for the role of Principal Villain if one is needed at all. And yet that's a relatively unimportant part of the whole: what happened in some ways is less interesting than why it happened, and that's a study of character more than of timetables and evidence.

The ending is perhaps cut a little short, as one would like to see more of Brat being Brat without pretence, but to me that is the only significant flaw in this excellent book.

Freely available from Project Gutenberg Australia.

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