E.F. Benson is the author of my latest contribution to Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books. He was a member of a famous family; his father became Archbishop of Canterbury, his mother was described by Gladstone as ‘the cleverest woman in Europe’ (blimey!), and his three brothers all achieved fame. E.F. (aka Fred) was a noted author, best remembered today for his humorous stories about Mapp and Lucia.
Fred’s work occasionally strayed into our territory, and The Blotting Book, published in 1908, is an example, and seven years earlier, he wrote The Luck of the Vails. Even though he did not feel the inclination to write any more crime novels, the Australian academic and crime expert Stephen Knight said, in his introduction to a paperback reprint of The Blotting Book in 1987, ‘he seems to have been briefly swept on the flow tide of the crime novel, as it developed out of the widespread popularity of the short story mystery.’
The setting is well-to-do Brighton and the book opens with a careful description of Mrs Assheton’s home in Sussex Square, where ‘everything moved with the regularity of the solar system’. But dark passions stir behind the façade of respectability. When murder is done, a suspect is arrested, and Benson offers a trial scene with a dramatic late twist. The pace is sedate – an all-action thriller this is not! - but the writing is smooth and capable.
Knight notes that ‘the shape of a short story grown into novel is quite apparent. Benson makes do with few characters.’ This militates against complexity of puzzle, but Knight suggests that Benson was paving the way for Anthony Berkeley/Francis Iles, and that in this book, ‘time and place are as important as they would be to the Detection Club.’ An interesting slice of historic crime, not to be forgotten.