Lots of spoilers ahead.
I read the whole book crumbling cover to crumbling cover, then read back through various parts of it again last night and this morning. I made copious notes.
Tey's writing style is not as spare as, say, Hemingway's. I can't stand Hemingway. But she writes very cleanly. There are no excursions into lavish description or extensive backstory, except when the backstory is perfectly relevant. She jumps point of view frequently, and I wonder if having read this book so often during my formative years as a writer is what made me comfortable with what would come to be known as head-hopping.
An adult reader, and especially someone who has read a lot of mysteries, would probably figure out fairly early on that
Simon Ashby murdered his older twin brother Patrick.
Tey plants plenty of clues. At age 13, the same age at which the Ashby children lost their parents and Patrick supposedly committed suicide, I didn't pick up on those clues. The resolution was as much a surprise to me as the ending to any Nancy Drew mystery.
As an adult who already knew the ending, however, I was able to enjoy over and over the discovery of the clues, because there are so many of them that each reading revealed more. And I realised how perfectly written it was, how perfect each word was.
Among the very first is the title itself. Brat Farrar.
This is not, as it might seem, primarily the mystery of what happened (past tense) to Patrick Ashby. It's about what happens (present tense) to Brat Farrar. It's about who he is, what he does, why he does what he does, what he will do in any given situation and why.
The opening scene of luncheon at the Ashby house sets the stage for this character examination. The younger twins, Jane and Ruth, are eating lunch. They are perhaps a bit precocious for nine-going-on-ten, but I'm not familiar enough with precocious nine-going-on-ten-year-olds to judge.
First line of the book:
"Aunt Bee," said Jane, breathing heavily into her soup, "was Noah a cleverer back-room boy than Ulysses or was Ulysses a cleverer back-room boy than Noah?"
It seems innocuous enough, hardly menacing or even presaging mystery. Jane innocently wonders whether Noah was better at managing the invisible, behind-the-scenes details needed to save all the life-forms from drowning in the Flood, or Ulysses had a firmer grasp on the minutiae of bringing his men home safely from the foreign war and defeating all the monsters the gods have set against him.
Of course it serves to establish Jane's personality, even though the reader doesn't know from that single line that Jane is only nine-going-on-ten and not the main character, and in another book that might have been sufficient.
Once you've read the whole book, however, you recognize that this is instant foreshadowing of the conflict between Brat and his antagonist as well as the nature of the perspective each of them brings to that conflict. Is Brat going to be Noah, or Ulysses? Or both?
The reader doesn't actually meet the character Brat Farrar until page 15, when he is sitting in a restaurant in London with actor Alec Loding, who was born Alec Ledingham. The Ledinghams owned the much larger estate, Clare Park, neighboring the Ashbys' country home Latchetts. Alec at first mistakes Brat for Simon Ashby, the heir to Latchetts. The resemblance is so striking that Loding concocts a plan to coach the stranger into posing as the elder twin, Patrick, whose presumed death by suicide eight years prior left the inheritance to Simon.
When he proposes the scheme to the young man he now knows is Brat Farrar, Brat rejects the idea. He's not a criminal, and this plot is clearly criminal. But on page 19, after Brat has returned to his shabby lodgings . . .
The boy lay on his bed in the dark, fully dressed, and stared at the ceiling.
There were no street lamps outside to illuminate this back room under the slates; but the faint haze of light that hangs over London at night, emanation from a million arc and gas-lights and paraffin lamps shone ghost-like on the ceiling so that its cracks and stains showed like a world map.
The boy was looking at a world map too, but it was not on the ceiling. He was examining his odyssey; conducting a private inventory.
'Twas enough to give me goosebumps. The boy in the back room. The odyssey. But Tey wasn't done with this tasty morsel.
Bee Ashby meets with Brat at his London lodgings, and the "back room" phrase pops up again. And again. If the terms aren't used to describe the accommodations given to Brat at Latchetts, where he is put up in the old night nursery Patrick and Simon once shared, at least there is an implication that again, this is a back room, one that doesn't get the rising sun in the morning.
The theme of back rooms arises again toward the end of the book, and again it brought delightful goosebumps.
The Ashbys and their horses will be competing at the annual Bures Agricultural Show, which takes place in the town some 40 miles from Latchetts. They'll stay overnight at the Chequers, the inn/hotel where Ashbys have stayed for generations. And they have always occupied the same rooms, Numbers 17, 18, and 19. From page 150 . . .
It would have been possible long ago for the Ashbys on their annual visit to have some of the finer bedrooms at the Chequers, but no such idea ever crossed an Ashby mind. The difference between Number 3 and Number 17 was not that one was a fine room with a pleasant outlook and good furniture and the other a back room looking on to the roof of the assembly room, but that one wasn't "their" room and the other was.
Even the name of the hotel is one of the fine, perfect details.
On page 18, Loding refers to the proposition as a gamble, and Brat counters with pointing out that the gamble is really Loding's. "You're offering me the sweetest chance for a double-cross that I ever heard of." Alec responds ". . . No one with your Ashby looks could be a double-crosser. The Ashbys are monsters of rectitude." He goes further on the following page:
"Tell me," he said as they stopped at the entrance to the Underground, "do you play cards?"
"Not with strangers," said the young man pleasantly.
"I just wondered. I had never met the perfect poker face until now, and I should be sorry if it was being wasted on some nonconformist abstainer."
Loding makes another comment on Brat's poker face on page 33, after Brat has met with the Ashby family solicitors. (Just the name of the firm is another of Tey's precious details: Cosset, Thring and Noble: Cosset meaning to care for indulgently, Thring meaning to squeeze or press or crowd, and Noble.)
Gambling makes an appearance again on page 80.
What had been a dice game for dangerous stakes had become a mere taking candy from a baby. Now that Simon was his opponent, the thing was once more a contest.
Not dice, thought Brat, considering himself in the mirror. Chequers rather. A matter of cautious moves, of anticipating attack, of blocking an unforeseen thrust. Yes; chequers.
. . . The pieces were laid out on the board and they faced each other across it.
But Brat's assessment of the game he's playing with Simon quickly changes. Just a few paragraphs later, on page 81:
Not chequers, thought Brat. No, not chequers. Poker.
The book is loaded with just such sweet details. Patrick's little toy horse, to whom Alec Loding gave the sarcastic name "Travesty, by Irish Peasant out of Bog Oak," was a typical tourist souvenir made from ancient Irish wood. But that sarcasm, and perhaps some of the animosity, comes back as an echo in the name of Simon's horse, Timber. Timber is the real travesty, and Brat's identification of the horse with his master -- vain, conceited, and lethal -- completes the link.
What delighted me the most on this latest reading was the way Tey developed the relationship between Brat and the "real" Patrick Ashby.
None of those who were adults at the time of Patrick's suicide -- Aunt Bee, Mr. Sandal of Cosset, Thring and Noble, the rector George Peck (who also happens to be Alec Loding's brother-in-law) -- have been able to reconcile Patrick's suicide with the boy they remember him to be: sensitive, caring, kind, thoughtful. But neither were they able to reconcile that Patrick with the one Brat purports to be, a Patrick who was so overwhelmed by his parents' death and his inheritance of Latchetts that he simply ran away.
They all saw what they expected to see. There's a marvelous conversation between Bee and George Peck about this, and it sets the stage for so much that comes later.
But it's Brat, who has no expectations, who is therefore able to see that if the Patrick Ashby everyone knew was incapable of suicide, and if the Patrick Ashby who everyone knew would never have run away and never written to anyone to let them know he was all right, then something else must have happened to him. And that something else can only have been murder.
The relationship with Patrick has its roots in the character of Brat Farrar.
He lay on the bed and thought about it. This sudden identification in an unbelonging life. He had a great desire to see this twin of his; this Ashby boy. Ashby. It was a nice name: a good English name. He would like to see the place too: this Latchetts, where his twin had grown up in belonging quiet while he had bucketed round the world all the way from the orphanage to that moment in a London street, belonging nowhere.
The orphanage. It was no fault of the orphanage that he had not belonged. (pp. 20-21)
Later . . .
As he hung his jacket over the back of the chair he thought about that young Ashby who had bowed out. With everything in the world to live for he had gone and thrown himself off a cliff. It didn't make sense. Did parents matter all that much? (p. 28)
How much of Brat's motivation to take Loding up on his offer came from the lure of the horses? How much from his sense of wanting to belong? How much from curiosity about or connection to Patrick Ashby? The questioning begins early, on page 35.
But it was not Simon who held his interest; it was the child who had not lived to grow up; the boy whose place he was going to take. He had an odd feeling of identity with Patrick.
Even he himself noticed this, and found it strange. He should have been filled with guilt when he considered Patrick. But his only emotion was one of partisanship; almost of alliance.
This feeling grows stronger after Brat is accepted as the returned Patrick, and it's reinforced by this growing sense of belonging. On page 105,
This morning he had got up and dressed in that back room under the slates, with the crowding chimney-pots beyond the window. And here he was, going to sleep in Latchetts, with the sweet cold smell of the down blowing in on the damp air from the window.
As sleep drew him under he had an odd feeling of reassurance. A feeling that Pat Ashby didn't mind his being there; that he was on the contrary pleased about it all.
The relationship deepens as does Brat's understanding of the situation he has found himself in.
Before lunch was over the first of the visitors arrived; and the steady stream went on, from after-luncheon coffee, through tea, to six o'clock drinks. They had all come to inspect Brat, but he noticed that those who had known Patrick Ashby came with genuine pleasure in welcoming him back. Each of them had some small memory of him to recount, and all of them had kept the memory green because they had liked Pat Ashby and grieved for him. And Brat caught himself being gratified in an absurd and proprietorial way, as if some protégé of his own was being praised. The light that had been shed on Simon this morning made him more than ever Patrick's champion. It was all wrong that Latchetts should have been Simon's all those years. It was Patrick's inheritance and it was all wrong that Patrick should not be here to inherit it. Patrick was all right. Patrick would not have gone sick with rage because his best girl had a better horse than he had. Patrick was all right. (p. 115)
There's a temptation to read this as Brat's rationalization for his actions, a justification for anything he might do in the future. If Patrick Ashby was "all right" and Brat Farrar is now Pat Ashby, then Brat must be "all right," too. In fact, he is, even to the point of being a "monster of rectitude" and paying Loding at least one installment on their arrangement.
All of these are details picked up from little bits of words and business that go into the making of the character(s) and the construction of the plot.
Again, the issue is not the mystery so much as it is how Brat Farrar acts and reacts within that framework. He has what he wanted, in a most "be careful what you wish for" conundrum. He has Latchetts, he has a sense of belonging. But it comes with a huge price, and that game with Simon is not over.
When it finally comes, the confrontation is, of course, a stalemate. From page 168:
[Simon] laughed under his breath and said: "It's a wonderful spiritual twinship, isn't it? I can't tell about you and you can't tell about me!"
"You have the advantage of me, though."
"I have? How?"
"You have no scruples."
The clear implication here is that Brat does have scruples, even if he hasn't shown any so far. He also knows that Simon, who has already tried twice to kill him, will continue to try. After all, he did kill Patrick, even if Brat hasn't figured out how he did it.
Their conversation continues:
"I suppose you wouldn't like, in return for my confidences, to tell me something?
"Tell you what?"
"Who you are?"
Brat sat looking at him for a long time.
"Don't you recognise me?" he said.
"No. Who are you?"
"Retribution," said Brat, and finished his drink.
What I had missed on my first reading of this exquisite book was Brat's nobility, which goes right straight back to that law firm of Cosset, Thring and Noble. Under the law, Simon had been cossetted as the heir to Latchetts. He was spoiled and conceited and dangerous, but never challenged. Thring is an Old English word, not familiar but nonetheless real. Brat's return as Patrick has crowded, pressured, squeezed Simon out of his ill-gotten inheritance. And now it is only Brat's essential nobility that can bring that retribution to Simon.
He will, of course, lose Latchetts, its wealth and its horses. The revelation of his fraud will lose him the family he has come to love, to which he belongs as he has never belonged before. He will also lose the woman he has come to love as more than just a member of that family. And there is even the risk that he will lose his life.
But this is Brat Farrar's story. Not Simon's and not Patrick's. Just as Brat knew instinctively that Patrick was "all right," could he -- Brat -- be any less?
While I have written this, and it has taken me the better part of a full day, I have read the book yet again. And it has not lost any of its magic, any of its nobility, any of its perfection.
Thee are a few books that I would automatically put on my "desert isle keeper" list. The Far Pavilions is one. Frank Yerby's The Saracen Blade is another. They are longer and would provide more entertainment on that desert island simply by volume. But for the sheer perfection of its writing, Brat Farrar has to be at the top of that list.
If I were to recommend a novel as the perfect example for aspiring writers to study, there is no question that this would be the model.
read it and enjoy, then reread it and be amazed.
Ten stars? More like twenty.
This re-read of an old favorite was undertaken with the full intention of picking it apart to see if it held up as "the most perfectly written" book I've ever read. It did . . . and it didn't.
This post looks at an element of the story's construction -- not its writing -- that I never realized before. And it's not a spoiler.
So before I put together the full review and analysis, I wanted to post this oddity. I hesitate to call it a flaw, because it doesn't affect either the structure of the mystery or the writing expertise, both of which remain amazing.
Josephine Tey published Brat Farrar in 1949. Britain had been devastated during World War II in ways the United States had not. Reading the book the first time, as a young American teen-ager in the 1960s, I didn't connect the war to the book at all. Nor did I overlay the one on the other during subsequent readings. On this reading, however, one small detail suddenly revealed what I thought was an oddity.
The setting for the story is contemporary with its publication -- there are automobiles and telephones, buses and airplanes, dental records and photographs. There are, however, just two references to the war and they are only about very small, almost inconsequential, details. (Nothing in this book is truly inconsequential.)
The timeline for the background -- the deaths of Bill and Nora Ashby in a plane crash and the suicide/disappearance of their son Patrick -- doesn't include the war at all. Assuming that the story's timeline is reasonably contemporary to its publication, Bill and Nora's holiday in France would have taken place circa 1940, 1941. Bill's sister Bee's guardianship of the five -- and then four -- Ashby children would therefore have encompassed virtually the whole of the war years. Brat's departure from England and early sojourn in France would likewise have been during the hottest years and months of the war. His transport on tramp steamers across the Atlantic would have been fraught with danger.
No mention is made of this. None.
I assume Tey wanted the focus to be on the mystery not the history, and that she even possibly wanted to make the story ahistorical, somewhat timeless.
Because one of those tiny details didn't appear until the very end of the book, and because it triggered my memory of the other, of which I couldn't remember the exact location, I'll be going back through the book to find that other detail and figure out how these two small bits of "business" affect the book's credibility.
The writing, however, was every bit as wonderful, as clever, as flawless as I remembered. And maybe more so.
EDITED TO FIX SPOILER TAG.
The key to understanding how truly perfect Brat Farrar is is to set aside the story, which is quite simple. If you have not already read it and don't care to, here's a basic spoiler. If you haven't read it but want to, skip all future updates, because they're all going to be complete spoilers. It's not a long book; if you're a fan of English cozies, spend an afternoon or an evening with the Ashbys. I don't think you'll regret it
If you have any aspirations to writing -- regardless of genre -- stick around for what I hope will be a valuable analysis of what I consider to be the most perfectly written book I've ever read, bar none.
The basic story is that Brat Farrar is trying to pass himself off as the long-lost heir to a substantial English horse-breeding estate.
Bill and Nora Ashby died in a plane crash eight years ago. Bill was the owner of Latchetts, a horse-breeding estate in the south of England. Nora had inherited a substantial fortune of he own. They left behind five children.
Patrick and Simon, non-identical twins, were thirteen years old. Patrick was the elder by whatever small amount of time, and therefore the entire estate of Latchetts and Nora's fortune would go to Patrick.
Eleanor, the oldest daughter, was approximately a year younger than Patrick and Simon.
Another set of twins, Jane and Ruth, were approximately two years old. They were identical twins, at least physically.
Bill's sister Beatrice "Bee" Ashby became guardian of the five Ashby children.
Not long after Bill and Nora's deaths, Patrick committed suicide. He left a note that suggested he was overwhelmed by everything that had happened, and he had gone to the beach and swam out to drown. No body was ever recovered.
Simon became the heir.
Eight years pass, Simon is about to turn 21 and come into his inheritance.
Six weeks before the coming-of-age celebrations to mark Simon's reaching majority, a stranger appears on the scene who claims to be the missing Patrick.
The stranger is Brat Farrar. A foundling left at an orphanage, he was given the name Bartholomew Farrell. Brat became a nickname, and chance changed the last name to Farrar. Brat is spotted on a London street by actor Alec Loding, who had grown up as Alec Ledingham, a neighbor to the Ashbys of Latchetts. At first Loding mistakes Brat for Simon Ashby because of the strong family resemblance. Based on that resemblance, Loding offers to coach Brat into taking on the role of heir Patrick Ashby, for a cut of the inheritance.
Because of his love for horses, Brat shoves aside his strong conscience and agrees.
At first Simon, who has now been stripped of his substantial inheritance, denies the interloper can be Patrick, but eventually he accepts Brat as his long lost brother. In fact, Simon does not at all believe Brat is Patrick. And as the story develops, it's revealed that Simon has good reason to disbelieve Brat, because Simon is the only one who knows for a fact that Patrick didn't commit suicide nor did he just run away, as Brat claims. Simon murdered Patrick. There is a confrontation and a fight in which Simon is killed, but Brat is revealed to be an impostor. Or at least mostly one.
The reader is never left wondering if Brat is or is not the missing Ashby heir; his introduction (pg 15) makes it very clear that he is not. If there is any mystery at all, at least through the first 60 pages, it's whether or not Brat will be able to pull off his impersonation.
The story could not, of course, be written today, or at least not as taking place today, due to the evidence of DNA. In that sense, it's implausible. But as an example of how to write a story with not a single unnecessary scene or character or even word, Brat Farrar is unparalleled.