A pit in Dothan: Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar

Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar (1949) is one of my favourite books. It isn’t science fiction or fantasy, it was published as a mystery novel. It also falls into the special genre I call “double identity.”

Brat Farrar is a young man with a pronounced family resemblance to the Ashby family, of Lodings. A brother of about his age supposedly committed suicide—his body was never found—at the age of thirteen. If twenty-one year old Brat were the dead Patrick, he’d inherit the estate and all the money over the head of the smiling confident Simon Ashby. Brat encounters Alec, a rogue who knows the Ashbys well and Alec immediately concocts a plot. Brat is drawn into the affair at first from curiosity and later from a desire to avenge Patrick. This is a murder mystery as well as a double identity story, but the murder Brat is investigating is that of his own double, and he can’t reveal the truth without revealing his own deception.

The wonderful thing about Brar Farrar is the detail. The family at Latchetts is drawn very realistically, down to the details of their table manners and table talk—and this is a large part of the charm of the book. It draws you in to the story of them as people, as a family—the aunt who has been in loco parentis for eight years, the twin eleven year olds who are so different from each other, the sensible Eleanor, the charismatic Simon. Brat himself is fundamentally nice, and Tey shows him going through contortions to accept the deception. This is a double identity book where the family feels real and the possibility of revelation through the minefield keeps you on the edge of your chair.

The way Brat manages the deception, with intensive coaching from Alec Loding, feels realistic—we’re given just enough detail, and the details are very telling. The little horse he “remembers,” and its mock pedigree, “Travesty, by Irish Peasant out of Bog Oak” is just the right kind of thing. And the resemblance, being a general family resemblance and not a mysterious identical one, with the eventual explanation that he is an Ashby cousin, seems plausible. The growing sense that he is Patrick’s partisan and his need to find out the truth of Patrick’s death, is all very well done. The trouble with this kind of story is “usurper comes home and gets away with it and then what?” Tey gives a very satisfying “what,” an actual mystery that resolves well, an impressive climax, and a reasonable resolution.

Brat Farrar is set in the time it was written, though actually contemplating the world in which it took place gave me a great idea for a series of my own. I don’t know quite when Tey thought she was setting it. We see some technological evidence of 1949, but the atmosphere is that of the thirties. There’s some evidence that WWII happened—a dentist was bombed in the Blitz—but it doesn’t seem to have had the social effect it did in reality. This is a 1949 in which people cheerfully went on holiday in France eight years before and in which a thirteen year old running away seven years before could cross France and get work on a ship there—in 1941 and 1942? Surely not. I managed to read this book umpteen times without noticing this, but once I did I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Anybody who would like more books set in my Small Change universe can read this as one. It was partly to recreate the atmosphere of reading the domestic detail and comfortable middle-class English horsiness of Brat Farrar with the thought of Hitler safe at the Channel coast and nobody caring that I wrote them. Of course, this makes re-reading Brat Farrar odd for me now. But even so it absolutely sucked me in for the millionth time and I read it at one gulp.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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