Robert Blair was about to knock off from a slow day at his law firm when the phone rang. It was Marion Sharpe on the line, a local woman of quiet disposition who lived with her mother at their decrepit country house, The Franchise. It appeared that she was in some serious trouble: Miss Sharpe and her mother were accused of brutally kidnapping a demure young woman named Betty Kane. Miss Kane’s claims seemed highly unlikely, even to Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, until she described her prison — the attic room with its cracked window, the kitchen, and the old trunks — which sounded remarkably like The Franchise. Yet Marion Sharpe claimed the Kane girl had never been there, let alone been held captive for an entire month! Not believing Betty Kane’s story, Solicitor Blair takes up the case and, in a dazzling feat of amateur detective work, solves the unbelievable mystery that stumped even Inspector Grant.
Spoilers near the end, so don’t read further if you don’t want to know what’s what.
Nominally an Inspector Grant book (number 3 in the 6 book series) this is less about Grant – who barely makes an appearance – and more about Robert Blair, a wills and probate solicitor in a small town. At the beginning of the book, he is becoming aware that he is in a rut and whilst tradition is nice and steady, there is perhaps, something more missing, but he doesn’t know what.
He is almost out the door when his phone goes. Marion Sharpe is in need of help. She, along with her mother, has been accused of kidnapping and holding a young girl hostage in their decrepit and lonely house. The girl’s testimony is both specific and vague enough to be almost impossible to disprove, and a lack of proof that they didnt do it is likewise almost impossible to prove.
Blair agrees to provide legal support as best he can, despite not being a criminal lawyer, and as he gets involved with Marion and the case, finds he wants to continue giving both legal and emotional support. He does everything to help the women out, instigating investigations and doing the checks that the police seem unwilling or constrained not to take forward. Initially the police are not willing to press charges on the basis there is nothing more than one person’s word against another. However, the national press get involved and soon whip the reading public’s emotions into a frenzy, making the police reinvestigate the issue, and the women’s case makes its’ way into the assizes.
Considering how old this book is (first published in 1948) it’s both interesting and sad how little things have changed – especially around the press, and the general reading public, who takes things on the face of it. As expected the case appears for one day on the front page, they present a judgement on the Sharpes verses the innocent-looking 15 year old Betty, and the letters page (today’s Comment section) is inundated until late the following week with hysteria – which leads to some windows being smashed at The Franchise. However, it has almost died down when another gutter publication (previous heroes including a left wing killer being persecuted by his government who – shock – want to lock him up for being a “patriot” for killing people). Sadly things have not changed much as of today, only the vehicle.
The dénouement comes late in the story and is much of luck as anything. It leads to a showdown in court with the testimony of Betty being pulled apart and the façade of her innocence being shown to be false to all who were willing it to be true. The whole thing has come at a price for the Sharpes, who have been shaken out of their stupor to make a decision about their future that’s been long in the making. Blair also realises that he has a choice to make – remain in his static, regular but ultimately boring life, or do something different, and perhaps this is the moment to make that change…..
A bit more about the book, and the resulting films (none of which I’ve seen)
Grumpy Old Bookman’s review of the same book
Pretty Terrible’s post on the same book