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I'm way behind on the Silmarillion, and everything else, but I do want to talk about The Franchise Affair, which is kind of bizarrely unpleasant.



This is the third book I've read (that I can think of) in which an obvious suspect is pre-emptively excluded from consideration due to personal prejudice on the part of the investigator. I enjoyed Strong Poison and Artists in Crime, in which potential murderers are assumed to be innocent based on their Eyebrows of Sincerity and excellent taste in things the detective likes; even though this is bad detective practice, I was able to roll my eyes affectionately and go with it. In The Franchise Affair, Robert Blair meets a pair of accused kidnappers and their accuser, a teenage girl, and decides that the girl is lying. I did not enjoy The Franchise Affair, except as a slow-motion human trainwreck, and I experienced no affection for Robert Blair's foibles.

This is probably because the focus of the prejudice in The Franchise Affair was on the (not actually) obvious guilt of a potential victim, rather than on the (not actually) obvious innocence of of a potential culprit. Blair is partly moved by a positive prejudice -- the Sharpes seem like nice people! They have a nice house and nice sherry! But far more powerful is his conviction that the girl (Betty Kane) is untrustworthy and unwholesome. She has, as previously mentioned, dark blue eyes set wide apart, which according to the "analytical" Marion Sharpe, is the Infallible Mark of the Nymphomaniac. Pretty soon every "sympathetic" character is literally sitting around talking about how much they'd like to literally torture the awful Miss Kane for being so awful and slutty and creepy and gross.

I guess I find unearned sympathy more palatable than unwarranted hostility, even though realistically speaking the investigation is just as botched one way as the other. Well, and irrationally motivated detectives Wimsey and Alleyn both have the decency to spend ~0.3 seconds worrying about their impaired judgement, whereas Blair settles early and without hesitation into his hostility toward Betty Kane and never looks back. And the hostility is pronounced, prolonged, and gleeful. No one suggests that Betty Kane might not actually deserve to be tortured for having sex or telling lies; no one even expresses any discomfort at all the torture talk. She turned up covered in bruises, but no one is interested in finding out where they came from. No one suggests that beating up a fifteen-year-old girl is in any way objectionable, provided the girl "had it coming;" no one wonders about her past (except to note that her mother was also a lying slut and Blood Will Tell) or her motivations, no one will acknowledge that it is even logically possible to be a sexually active teenager and a liar and also the victim of a crime, all at once.

It's really amazing. And it shoots itself in the foot, because with a little reframing the very same story could have been a creepy and effective thriller. If Blair and co. had been taken in by Betty Kane's story, or even significantly conflicted about whom to believe, watching the lies fall away to reveal a cold and calculating manipulator could have been suspenseful and satisfying. Instead, it starts out with the presumption that Betty Kane is the worst, spends two hundred pages frothing at the mouth about all the (frequently sexually charged) terrible things Our Heroes want to do to her, and backs into a deus ex machina proving that, indeed, just as we suspected, Betty Kane is the worst. It's unpleasant and boring to be told what to think for an entire book about a character who barely gets to speak. I couldn't even live in hope of a twist in which the Sharpes were guilty after all, because there wasn't any place in the narrative for a joint or a wheel to turn the plot around -- no clues, no cracks, no suspicious glances or unexpected stains, just full speed ahead on the Torquemada Express.



I still feel a little like a hypocrite for disliking this form of bad detection so much more than its amiable twin, but it can't be helped. Anyway, I took The Franchise Affair back to the library with no regrets. There is a good essay by Sarah Waters that talks about some of the many things happening in this book, here.

Comments

( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
alley_skywalker
Mar. 10th, 2015 07:19 am (UTC)
OMG how did you even make it through an entire book of that? Sounds awful.
evelyn_b
Mar. 10th, 2015 07:49 am (UTC)
Hah, it is! It was! I was fueled by curiosity, by the fact that I really enjoyed another book by the same author (The Daughter of Time, despite having some of the same flaws in less virulent form) and the fact that the pacing and prose are occasionally almost good enough to trick me into thinking I wasn't reading a bunch of terrible people fantasize about beating up a teenager. And I wanted to confirm that it was actually doing what it seemed to be doing, with no big surprise at the end.
hafl
Mar. 10th, 2015 09:13 am (UTC)
The last time I read a book like this (though that was a bunch of ten year old girls beating up another ten year old girl because she was "evil incarnate"), the author later turned out to be nazi collaborator.
evelyn_b
Mar. 10th, 2015 03:24 pm (UTC)
Oh no! What was the book?

Tey is famous for revealing very little of herself, so I don't actually know if she was a Nazi collaborator or not! Probably not? It seems like the kind of political enthusiasm she would disdain. But I don't know for sure.
hafl
Mar. 10th, 2015 04:56 pm (UTC)
It was a really trashy Czech children's book from the 1930s. The author later moved on to writing novels about valiant German soldier fighting the treacherous Brits in Siberia.

And Tey definitely wasn't a collaborator, since she never lived anywhere under Nazi occupation. Probably not even a sympathizer, because nazism was a very working-class movement.
evelyn_b
Mar. 10th, 2015 05:10 pm (UTC)
"Sympathizer" -- you're right! sorry, my brain is not doing words correctly today. And yes, I very much doubt Tey would have any truck with the vulgar Nazis or their upstart British fan clubs. Very ungenteel.
osprey_archer
Mar. 10th, 2015 01:47 pm (UTC)
I want to read your alternative version of this book so much, because the story about the secret master manipulator who almost took everyone in would be so interesting. (I guess it would also have unfortunate implications when told about a teenage girl, but then teenage girls so rarely falsely accuse people of kidnapping them to force them to work as housemaids, so less so than if it turned out she was lying about sexual abuse?)

As it is, I spent most of the book going O.o, are you really going to hang your investigation on her wide-spaced dark blue nymphomaniac eyes, sir? And yes, he did! And he was right! And it was creepy.
evelyn_b
Mar. 10th, 2015 05:05 pm (UTC)
I think if you have more than one teenage girl in the entire book, and have victims/investigators/other non-caricatures who respond with a mix of anger and pity and confusion and self-doubt, instead of pure hate, it might be ok!

There are unscrupulous people in RL who play on other people's sympathies in order to get something out of them or just to have a kind of power. It would make sense for Blair et al. to be very angry at Betty (more so if he'd actually believed her at first) but also to be curious about what "made her this way" and conflicted about whether he should pity her or not.

The idea that a teenager could do something calculating and cruel (and/or have sex with a married man) without being The Worst Human Ever Forever for whom no punishment is harsh enough -- this never occurs to anyone in the POV circle. That the victims of crime can be bad people, and that their badness doesn't just cancel out the crime so that it's not a crime any more -- that's like, Precept Number One of detective fiction, and it's totally missing here. Which I guess would be interestingly genre-bending if it weren't so damn unpleasant.

The book I kept thinking of was Lolita. Every major character's assessment of Betty Kane is like Humbert's of Lo, but only Humbert at his cruelest and most unreflective.

Edited at 2015-03-10 05:08 pm (UTC)
wordsofastory
Mar. 10th, 2015 03:39 pm (UTC)
Oh, wow! That sounds really terrible. Also, just playing it straight for the entire books sounds very boring, even aside from the ethics of it.
evelyn_b
Mar. 10th, 2015 05:43 pm (UTC)
It really is. And honestly, Tey could have packed in just as much virulent Teen Sexuality and class panic if she'd framed the story to be a competent thriller with doubts and twists instead of an unbending 300-page hatefest where the initial hypothesis and the conclusion are exactly the same. I think I would feel very differently about the book if it hadn't been such a monolith -- probably still a little squeamish, but much less frustrated and annoyed.
wordsofastory
Mar. 10th, 2015 05:52 pm (UTC)
I was trying to remember if I'd ever read a mystery where the initial hypothesis turns out to be exactly right, and I could only think of one. But a) it was a subplot in a larger novel, so it only took up about 100 pages, instead of the full length of the book, and b) the tension in the plot was driven not by "who did it", but "we know who did it, will we find where he's hiding soon enough to rescue his hostage". I wonder now if it's even possible to do this sort of 'we've been right all along' plot without any twists or surprises and make it interesting.
evelyn_b
Mar. 10th, 2015 06:18 pm (UTC)
Well, the Irrationally Motivated Detectives in Artists in Crime and Strong Poison turn out to be right about their faves not being murderers, but then there are other things to find out. Though in Strong Poison the motive for the investigation is "prove this (not actually) obviously innocent person innocent!" and nothing ever happens to undermine that hypothesis, so structurally I guess it's similar? Much less torture-y, though.

The weird thing (one of the weird things) about The Franchise Affair is that it could easily have used Betty Kane's bruises and month-long disappearance as the pretext for a larger-scale investigation, without the vendetta. It would have been so easy to chip away at Betty's story in the natural course of trying to help her, without setting out to destroy her on Page 10.

I think a lot of things are possible! I don't know if that is. It might be, but I can't think of any examples. There are bumps in the road in TFA, additional testimony and apparently complicating details, but they're just obstacles to knock out of the way; the investigators never suffer any doubt as a result, and that's what makes it boring.

Edited at 2015-03-10 06:28 pm (UTC)
lost_spook
Mar. 10th, 2015 06:03 pm (UTC)
no one will acknowledge that it is even logically possible to be a sexually active teenager and a liar and also the victim of a crime, all at once.

*nods* I still find it strange that I actually managed to read it and like it the fist time, her prose kind of covering over all this, and then I read it again and backed away slowly in horror. (I have to keep my copy for a) evidence and b) to spare others from reading it).

Which is why when you read this one first and then come to Daughter of Time the painting of poor, romantic, wronged Richard immediately starts to look suspect. Whether or not it is. (It probably is, at least to a point.)
evelyn_b
Mar. 10th, 2015 08:56 pm (UTC)
Hah, definitely! Though it was kind of suspect to begin with. There are some leaps and you do feel sometimes like Tey is leading you around by the nose. But Grant getting overly sentimental about poor kind-faced Richard losing everything only to be villainized by history makes for a very different reading experience than Blair waxing wroth over a living teenager not getting punched in the face enough times.
lost_spook
Mar. 11th, 2015 09:12 am (UTC)
Yes - too sympathetic is a flaw, but it's a nicer one than not being sympathetic enough!
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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