Josephine Tey and her masterpiece of paranoia in postwar England

Those Americans of us who watch a lot of British-produced television — from Upstairs, Downstairs to Downton Abbey to Belgravia and many more besides — are often impressed, if not horrified, by the number of servants required to help the British upper-classes get through the day.

Butlers, cooks, scullery maids, chambermaids — the list of job titles alone would weary any government bureaucrat. They are constantly cleaning, polishing, measuring, accounting, dusting, folding, ironing, and the like, all the while exchanging gossip and discrete knowing looks while their “betters” glide through their lives.

We Americans tend to dismiss all this as an eccentric part of British life, but the Brits, once upon a time, take it pretty seriously.

So seriously, in fact, that one of the leading lights of the golden age of detective fiction, Josephine Tey (the nom de plume for Elizabeth MacKintosh), constructed one of her best novels around the idea of someone else doing the cleaning and cooking.

Tey lived a tragically short life; she died of cancer at the age of 55 in 1952. She had written numerous mystery novels and plays and is often counted among the best of those who practiced that kind of fiction.

One of her best mysteries, The Franchise, has been republished by The Folio Society, and Lady Antonia Fraser has written the introduction, an excerpt of which you can read on CrimeReads.com. It includes this bit:

At one level, then, The Franchise Affair is a compelling story, and I have always found it impossible to stop reading it, once I start, despite knowing in advance the trick of it all. But it has another fascinating aspect which Josephine Tey could hardly have suspected. The Franchise Affair has become a wonderfully evocative period piece, including the supposed raison d’être of the plot. Why would the respectable if isolated Sharpes commit such an extraordinarily desperate act? It is the alleged explanation which is so interesting: they were indeed desperate—desperate for domestic help. Source: How Josephine Tey Crafted a Masterpiece of Paranoia in Postwar England | CrimeReads

If you are a fan of the golden age genré and have never tried Josephine Tey, her book on domestic help might be a good place to start.

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, (JPROF.com) a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self-publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker, and beekeeper -- among other things. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter at http://www.jprof.com .
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