02 December 2011
Book Review: Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey
I wouldn't say it was my favorite Tey mystery, but it was certainly very interesting, very clever, and very readable. (In fact, I read it over the Thanksgiving holiday while on the couch watching TV with family.) And similar to what has happened in other Tey novels, the premise on the back cover failed to provide the best sense of the story. It's not wrong, per se, but it doesn't offer the punch that the story provides.
So what happens?
Just a few days before Ashby heir Simon Ashby is due to turn 21 and thus inherit his family's fortune, someone shows up claiming to be Patrick Ashby, Simon's twin brother and the older by a few minutes. This, of course, would make Patrick the heir. The problem, however, is that Patrick is supposed to be dead. He disappeared and is believed to have committed suicide when he was only 13 years old -- eight years before. There was a treacherous cliff, a despairing note: and one day, Patrick was gone. Given that this followed hard on the heels of the sudden death of the Ashby children's parents, everyone just assumed that they had let Patrick down, that he had been more upset than anyone believed, and that he had leaped off the cliff one day in a moment of utter sadness.
Not surprisingly, most have put the incident out of mind. It's hard to imagine in any case; add the dynamic of a teenage boy who has just lost his parents, and the incident becomes impossible to think about without gut-wrenching guilt. The remaining Ashby children -- Simon, Eleanor, and almost-ten-year-old twins Ruth and Jane -- are cared for by their devoted Aunt Bee, and she does her best to raise them in as stable an environment as possible. She keeps Patrick's note, though, and occasionally forces herself to look at it as a reminder of what she believes to be a massive failure in her life.
But then, one day, Patrick comes back. He claims that he didn't kill himself after all. He says that the note wasn't a suicide note so much as a statement that he needed to get away and go somewhere else. He says that he left England, spent time in America, and is now ready to come home. Needless to say, everyone is shocked. The man who arrives couldn't be anyone but an Ashby. Simon and Patrick weren't identical twins, but they looked very, very similar; and this new arrival could easily be Simon's lost twin. Not only this, but the young man passes a number of identity tests. He remembers small details that only someone close to the Ashbys (like Patrick) would have known; he fits in easily, as the prodigal returning home. As everyone points out, if he isn't Patrick, then who could he be?
But of course, he isn't Patrick Ashby at all. What's interesting about this book is that the reader is in on the scheme from the beginning. The mystery isn't really about whether or not Brat Farrar, as he has called himself for many years, is Patrick. We know he isn't. We're taken through the events that lead Brat Farrar to the point of pretending to be Patrick, and we find out the what, the why, and the how. The real mystery, it turns out, is in who Brat Farrar turns out to be and what actually happened to Patrick. One thing that's emphasized over and over again is that Patrick was a sweet and considerate young man. Even in a state of depression, it's unlikely he would have (1) hurled himself over a cliff, or (2) run away without sending any word. So Brat takes it upon himself to figure this out, and the discovery proves to be both chilling and devastating.
What's also interesting is that Inspector Grant isn't part of this book. I kept hoping he'd make an appearance, but in retrospect I understand why Tey chose to leave him out. The ending is such that it's better for the police to be involved as little as possible, and Inspector Grant is most decidedly the police. Besides, this book is Brat Farrar's journey from his former identity and to his new one, so Grant really doesn't have a place.
Again, not my favorite Tey book by any means, but certainly more intriguing that I expected it to be. I definitely recommend it, but I don't know that I recommend it as a first Tey read. The style is a bit of a departure from her other mysteries, and while this isn't a bad thing it might be disorienting to read this first and then turn to one of the Inspector Grant mysteries. Leave this one as a fun alternative when looking for a different kind of mystery.
Year of publication: 1950
Number of pages: 286