Imposture lies at the heart of this well constructed suspense novel by Elizabeth Mackintosh, the Scottish author best known today for the mysteries she published as ‘Josephine Tey’, though she also wrote books and plays using her own name and the pseudonym ‘Gordon Daviot’. Sadly she didn’t live long enough to enjoy the acclaim for the historical armchair mystery The Daughter of Time, easily the most enduring and popular of her work. Apart from her series featuring Inspector Alan Grant, her books were all stand-alone works like Brat Farrar (republished in 1951 by Pocket Books under their typically impolite title, Come and Kill Me), an exploration of the ‘Enoch Arden’ theme of the belated return of a man previously thought dead so beloved by Agatha Christie.
The 2012 Alphabet of Crime community meme over at Mysteries in Paradise continues this week with the letter B. The following review is also eligible as part of Bev’s 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge and am including it as part of my Golden Age Girls section, reviewing pre-1960 mysteries by women authors.
He couldn’t go to Latchetts as a blackmailer, he wouldn’t go as a suppliant, he would damn well go as an invader.
Set amongst the horsey set on the south coast of England not long after the end of the Second World War, this novel begins with that most domestic of scenes – the family breakfast. Round the table are what is left of the Ashby clan: Aunt Beatrice and her nieces and nephews. The oldest is Simon, who is shortly due to turns 21 and inherit the family title (and his mother’s money); then there is slightly younger Eleanor and then the preteen twins Ruth and Jane. Their parents were killed in an air crash some eight years earlier, which led to another tragedy – disconsolate after their death, it had been thought that Simon’s twin brother Patrick swam out to sea after leaving a farewell note on the beach. Although a body was found much later, it was beyond recognition, which is what initiates the criminal plot at the heart of the story. Although Aunt Bee has managed to make ends meet and keep the family together and run their stud and riding farm, this harmony is about to be disrupted by the arrival of a man who says he is in fact Patrick – and what is more, as the older of the twins, it is he who stands to inherit, rather than Simon. Is he who he says he is?
“So this was what riding a good English horse was like, he thought. This communion, this being one half of a whole. This effortlessness. This magic.”
However, this is not a conventional whodunit and right from the start we know that the claimant is in fact an imposter, the eponymous, oddly monickered, Brat Farrar. Except that this is not his real name either. Recently back after adventures in Europe and America, Brat, short for Bartholomew, is a foundling brought up in an orphanage without knowing who his real parents were. Part of the reason he agrees to this attempt at fraud, at the instigation of an impecunious wastrel by the name of Loding, who used to be an Ashby family friend while a boy, is precisely because he desperately wants to belong. And the fact that he was not brought up that far away from the Ashby’s – not to mention his family resemblance – inevitably suggests that perhaps he is an illegitimate sire of the family. Never the less through coaching and good instincts, he is able to pass himself off as Patrick, and is quickly smitten by the Ashby women, especially the nurturing Aunt Bee and his ‘sister’ Eleanor, leading to some slightly queasy-making romantic thoughts (which needless to say got considerably augmented when the book was filmed by Hammer, as discussed below). Everyone calls the apparently returned prodigal ‘Brat’ and welcomes him with open arms – with the notable exception of Simon, though his reasons are to say the least obscure.
“So Brat took possession of Latchetts and of everyone in it, with the exception of Simon.”
Brat finally finds the family he has always been looking for, and perhaps too easily Tey lets the reader, as well as him, forget that he is in fact a fraud even if Simon doesn’t seem to be a very nice person after all. Beyond Brat’s physical resemblance to Patrick, there is also a stronger sense of attachment because, like the Ashby family, he has a real kinship with horses, much happier with them than he ever is with people. Tey gives us long descriptions of the horses, their training and the shows at which they participate, which frankly I was dreading as I am not a great lover of anthropomorphic literature, mysteries or other. However, the descriptions are all well done and compelling and serve the novel well, advancing the plot as we learn more about the major characters through their equine activities. This is particularly pronounced in Brat strained relationship with Simon, who initially rejects the idea that Patrick could be coming back but who then has a complete volte face. Despite this, Brat believes that there is something sinister, about Simon and his horse Timber too – which turns out to be very well founded in the case of the animal has in fact already caused the deaths of two people! It would be a shame to say more about the plot beyond this point, though there is an undeniable technical elegance and symmetry to the conclusion that is very pleasing, which makes up for the fact that it isn’t necessarily very surprising by the time we get there though there is a sense of inevitability as the conclusion arrives.
The book was subsequently filmed fairly loosely (and thusly without an on-screen credit) as Paranoiac (1963), which I previously reviewed as part of my ongoing celebration of the thrillers made by the Hammer company. You can read my review here. The basic plot and characters (minus the horses) are all there, but with a Gothic climax added in the style of the studio. It was filmed more conventionally for BBC TV too in 1986 in a version that is fairly easy to access online if not exactly legally. The book itself is available for free as an ebook from The University of Adelaide here.
It is a well-written and smoothly plotted mystery that perhaps lets its lead character off a little bit easily in terms of his attempt to defraud (Loding for instance vanishes from the story very early on, never to be heard from again), but this is at heart a very romantic story and at that level works very well indeed.