It was my first ever Backlisted podcast (talk about being late to the party!), and my second time of listening to Val McDermid wax lyrical about a Josephine Tey novel I don’t own. (The first was To Love and Be Wise, this time she was discussing Miss Pym Disposes.) Frustrating? Not quite because there was a lot of talk about Brat Farrer and my pristine Folio Society edition had been waiting for just such a moment …
What fascinates McDermid about Tey is that she acts as a bridge between the golden age of crime and modernity. With her fascination for psychology, gender, sexuality and identity, she is the foremother of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell.
Two of those fascinations – psychology and identity – are writ large in Brat Farrer, which was inspired by a true life case of The Tichborne Claimant, a con man who claimed to be a missing man in order to claim an inheritance that was not his.
Brat Farrer is the fictional con man who pretends to be Patrick Ashby to inherit the family estate, Latchetts. The real Patrick supposedly committed suicide at the age of 13 by jumping off a cliff. The ambiguously worded suicide note, found in his coat picket, leaves enough space for Brat to sneak through and reclaim his inheritance. The problem is that Patrick had a twin, Simon, who has for the last 8 years been assured that Latchetts was to be his.
There is what McDermid called “a preposterous coincidence” in all this. That a third person, Brat, bears enough family resemblance to be mistaken for Patrick/Simon Ashby. Actually I’d say there are two: that a family “friend” just happens to spot Brat on the streets of London and talks him into the con. Normally I’d roll my eyes and walk away at this but here we have an exception, and that’s due to the psychological tension in the drama.
Yes, Brat gets talked into the con, but he’s neither heartless nor without conscience. He battles with himself in his internal dialogue, particularly when he realises that his targets are decent folk. What drives him to continue, however, is the challenge presented by his “twin” Simon, who on the face of it accepts Patrick back into the family, but is quietly determined to ensure that he is not deprived of the future he had been expecting. Simon is, if you will, the human equivalent of the rogue horse, Timber. Handsome, conceited, and sly … very sly.
Brat is never sure whether Simon knows he is a fake, and Simon never knows whether Brat has perceived his dishonourable intentions. See how Tey has twisted this around. It’s the criminal receiving the reader’s sympathies! The showdown when it comes is not unexpected but it sure is dramatic! That there is both a tragic and a happy ending is entirely unforeseen.
Brat Farrer is the third Tey I’ve read, and the first for which I have no reservations. I enjoyed The Daughter of Time, although looking back at my review, see that I ended up doubting Tey’s hypothesis. I listened to The Franchise Affair and thought it so flimsy that I couldn’t be bother reviewing it. That gives me 1 hit, 1 neutral and 1 miss. The decider is going to be the fourth Tey on my shelves, The Singing Sands. Watch this space.