by Josephine Tey
If I had to choose a favorite mystery novel, I think I’d pick Josephine Tey’s, Brat Farrar (Touchstone, 1997). I have now read Brat Farrar so many times that I’ve had to replace several worn out copies. I’ve always heard that Tey, who published little more than a handful of novels between 1927 and 1952, had trouble coming up with plots; so she frequently borrowed stories she had read in newspapers and then composed a novel based loosely around those details. (This is certainly the case with her novel, The Franchise Affair, which happens to be possibly my second all time favorite mystery novel.) Even a brief outline of Brat Farrar reveals a familiar plot: A young man masquerades as the heir to a fortune and nearly gets away with it. But Tey turns this summary on its head and the result is an emotionally satisfying novel that answers less who-done-it than how-and-why it was done. The title character, Brat Farrar, returns to England after spending many years in Canada working as a ranch hand. He is sitting peacefully in a restaurant one day when a total stranger comes up to him, addresses him as Simon, and asks him how come he’s able to lounge around London when his 21st birthday is rapidly approaching (which means that as eldest son he’ll come into a not-inconsiderable inheritance). Shouldn’t he be home helping with the plans for the gala occasion? At first Brat is merely surprised at being mistaken for Simon Ashby, heir to Latchetts, an English country estate devoted to horse breeding, then he’s intrigued when the stranger comes up with an apparently perfect plan, one with a big financial payoff for both men. Brat will simply pretend that he’s Patrick, the first-born twin and therefore the rightful heir. But Patrick disappeared when he was about 13, and has long been presumed dead. Brat, as Patrick, will return to the family, collect his inheritance, split it with the stranger, who turns out to be a close family friend of the Ashby’s, and then disappear again. After some intensive coaching, Brat infiltrates himself into the life of the Ashby family, only to discover that things are seldom what they seem, and an easy con turns potentially deadly.