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Saturday, October 16, 2010 8:51 pm
Classic Mystery: Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar
Posted by: Misha Stone

I confess that I just read Josephine Tey for the first time. What took me so long? Well, I also confess that I am not nearly as widely read as I want to be. I don’t read nearly enough mysteries every year, or romances, or science fiction or fantasy novels either. So I am taking Nancy Pearl’s class on Genre Fiction right now and having a ball.

Last week we discussed mysteries. One of the ‘traditional’ mysteries I read (students are instructed to read both a traditional/classic and a contemporary title in each genre we are covering) was Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey.

The Ashby’s have lived at Latchetts for generations, and Simon Ashby, whose parents both died when he was young, is about to turn 21 and come into his inheritance. Simon has three sisters, two of them twins, and Aunt Bee who has looked after them all since their parents died. But Simon also used to have a twin, Patrick, who died of an apparent suicide off of a cliffside when he was 13.

Brat Farrar has been living in America for some time, working with horses, but an injury has left him rudderless when a man on the street mistakes him for Simon Ashby. Brat, a foundling orphan, is drawn into a scheme to steal the Ashby estate from Simon by posing as Patrick, back eight years after his supposed death.

Tey is a wonderful character writer. She also captures the down-at-heels British gentry with nostalgic sophistication. Brat finds himself a reluctant actor, but is surprised by how much he likes the Ashby family. All except Simon, that is, who doesn’t seem to like him or accept his story about how Patrick ran away rather than died.

Tension arises when it begins to dawn on Brat that Simon doesn’t believe him because he knows what really happened to Patrick. What is Simon hiding?

This passage really spoke to me:

“I’ve seen some of that. Families, you know. It’s always the same; they just can’t believe it. Their Johnny. That is the horror in murder. The domesticity of it.”

Brat Farrar explores issues of family, identity and, yes, murder from a very British, very domestic point of view.

For someone who liked Brat Farrar, I would suggest: The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith because it is also a character novel, British in character and theme and is also about identity; Fox Evil by Minette Walters also involves family secrets, murder and a case of stolen identity; for a series with charming British characters, I might suggest Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple mysteries; but this book is also more a character novel than a mystery in some ways, so I might also tell a Tey fan about Jane Gardam’s Old Filth or Faith Fox or Iris Murdoch’s The Bell, which also involves a mystery.


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