Friday, 23 December 2011

The Blotting Book by E.F. Benson

This little 1908 novel is the story of a murder; rather unexpected from E.F. Benson who I know best for the Lucia books.  Morris Assheton is a young man from a wealthy background; his inheritance is held in trust until his twenty-fifth birthday, unless he marries before that date.  The trustees are Mr Taynton and Mr Mills, the family solicitors.  Mr Taynton is an agreeable, avuncular sort; charitable, religious and fond of his routines, he contrasts with the much pricklier Mr Mills.  Beneath the surface, however, they are more alike, since they have made some ill-advised speculations with Morris's money, hoping for personal profits.  When it becomes clear that Morris is in love, and likely to marry, Taynton becomes alarmed.  Can he buy enough time to restore Morris's inheritance, ensure his reputation and his prospects for a comfortable retirement?

The novel is set in Brighton, where I live, and many of the locations are still recognisable, although the murder scene, a quiet path over the downs from Falmer to Brighton, is much less rural nowadays and probably less conducive to violent crime.  Benson's book is not really a whodunit - it's fairly obvious who the murderer is - but it still makes use of typical tools of the genre.  Letters, railway timetables, calendars and the eponymous blotting book are all either clues or misdirections.  Again, while the book doesn't include the psychological analysis you get in Golden Age detective fiction, it is interested in the boundaries between fantasy, memory and forgetting.  

I thought Benson could have done more with the character of Mrs Assheton, Morris's mother - she felt very undeveloped to me, particularly in the context of Benson's more famous female characters - and the mouth-breathing Superintendent Figgis is a caricature.  But the social milieu - upper-class luxury on the Edwardian scale - is very well evoked, and the book is an enjoyable, if slight, read.  The Blotting Book is available in a print-on-demand edition - but the very nice Hogarth Press paperback can be had for a penny on Amazon.   Or you can find it on Project Gutenberg.

1 comment:

  1. How interesting, I had no idea he turned his hand to murder mysteries. I am intrigued by the ones which came shortly before the Golden Age - because they are working within different parametres, I suppose. A A Milne's The Red House Mystery is a case in point - entertaining, but nothing like as good, plot-wise, as Christie et al. In fact, the 'et al' are never as good as Christie...