21.2.11

Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar


The classic mystery novel, Brat Farrar, was written by Josephine Tey, an author whose life itself was shrouded in secrecy and mystery. The real Elizabeth Mackintosh shielded her identity behind two pseudonyms – Josephine Tey and Gordon Daviot. “Shy to the point of phobia,” claims Roy, “she had few intimate friends and confided in no one”(1980, 14). She was obsessed with privacy, refusing all interviews and media requests. Even the biographical information that she provided for Who’s Who does not reveal her true identity; she is listed there as Gordon Daviot (1949, 700). Her obituary can be found under Daviot, not Mackintosh, in The New York Times (February 14, 1952).

During her lifetime, Tey was known as a dramatist; today she is famous for her 8 crime novels. These novels are still in print and very popular with mystery fans. Tey also wrote a biography, 13 short stories, and 7 radio plays.

Brat Farrar is considered one of Tey’s best novels, adapted by the BBC for a three-part television drama and chosen by The New York Times as one of the “Best Mysteries of 1950” (December 3, 1950). The idea for the story is intriguing. The parents of five children (including two sets of twins) are killed in a plane crash, leaving their offspring for a relative to raise. After the male twins turn 13, one of them commits suicide. The novel begins 8 years later when the surviving twin is about to inherit the family fortune. A stranger suddenly appears, claiming to be the deceased boy and alleging that he ran away from home 8 years earlier. The mystery gradually unfolds over the course of the novel and a sense of impending doom dominates the last half of it. Brat Farrar is an example of story-telling at its best.

Although the novel relies upon the conventions of the Golden-Age mystery, it also stretches its boundaries. Unlike many of her predecessors, Tey was interested in the psychology of characters, not just the clue-puzzle element of stories. She explored the motivations of her major characters, giving them depth and plausibility. Brat Farrar is a compelling and complex criminal, one who gains the reader’s sympathy and understanding.

Tey frequently depicted impostors, pretenders, and deceivers, portraying them with profound insight. As Roy points out, “Tey writes about the fragility of reality: Neither people nor situations are what they seem. Appearances are deceptive. Life, Tey seems to say, is illusory” (1998, 913). We spend much of the novel trying to penetrate deceptions, never sure how to judge either of the male twins.

The country house setting, typical of Golden Age mysteries, is at the center of the crime. Latchetts, the Elizabethan manor house, is the prize of the family inheritance. Ironically this pastoral setting becomes the locus of greed, revenge, and crime in Brat Farrar.

In his introduction to the book, Robert Barnard claims that Brat Farrar occupies the “hinterland” between the “novel proper” and the crime novel (1997, 8). This mystery is indeed a perfect amalgam of both genres. DuBose’s final assessment of the book is one with which most readers would agree: “Brat Farrar is the work of a mature writer with full control of her themes and her style. It is so often cited by other writers as the best Tey detective novel because it so completely meets the qualifications of a fine novel” (2000, 271).

DuBose, Martha Hailey. Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2000.

“Daviot, Gordon.” In Who’s Who, 700. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1949.

Roy, Alexandra Von Malotte. “Josephine Tey (1896?-1952).” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks, vol. 2: 911-921. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998.

Roy, Sandra. Josephine Tey. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Tey, Josephine. Brat Farrar. 1950. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.