BOOK REVIEW: MURDER AT SISSINGHAM HALL by CLARA BENSON
Posted October 3, 2015on:
I have already blogged about this book on my ‘Most Enjoyable Books I’ve Read On Kindle So Far’ piece, but I wanted to add a little extra here, because it’s driving me up the wall as to whether these books are actually what they purport to be or not!
First off though, let me just say that Murder At Sissingham Hall is a fun, undemanding read from the Golden Age of crime fiction. It’s almost a standard country house murder, in the style of Dame Agatha Christie, and introducing a new amateur detective in the form of Mrs Angela Marchmont. The book is narrated by Charles Knox, fresh back from the Colonies, and Angela takes a bit of a back seat to him here, although she comes more into her own in the second book in the series The Mystery At Underwood House, when Knox is dispensed with altogether.
Angela Marchmont is a terrific character. She’s almost like a female James Bond. She has a mysterious past (she is a widow, and the late Mr Marchmont barely gets a mention at all), she lives a glamorous, comfortable lifestyle, and she is incredibly resourceful. So far there are 9 books in the series, and I’m looking forward to the rest of her adventures.
The author, Clara Benson, was supposedly born in 1890 (the same year as Dame Agatha), and wrote her stories strictly as a hobby, with no intention of publishing them. She simply passed them around amongst her friends for fun. Her family unearthed all the manuscripts after her death in 1965. There is a lot of suspicion flying around though that this isn’t true, that Clara is in fact a modern author masquerading. Critics are combing through the books looking for slip-ups and anachronisms to try and catch her out. (To be honest, I suspect it would be quite easy to fool me. I recently read Evelyn James’ Memories of the Dead, about a female private investigator in Brighton in 1921, and was utterly convinced it was from that era! So congratulations Ms James!).
Anyway, the anachronisms. The one that seems to have critics being particularly jubilant in Sissingham Hall is the mention of a young Hollywood actress called Lilli le Seur. Now of course, as vintage movie fans will know, Lucille Le Seur was the real name of Joan Crawford, who did indeed start out as a young flapper actress in the Silent Era of the 1920s. Critics have asked how could an author of the time have known that? We-e-e-ll quite easily I suspect. Like many budding starlets Joan Crawford had to change her name to suit her studio bosses (it was thought that Le Seur sounded too much like “sewer”), and in fact she acquired her screen name when it was decided to run a competition in a fan magazine to think up a new name for her. Fans picked “Joan Crawford”, a name she reputedly hated. I’m assuming (not having been around in the 1920s) that this would have been quite well known amongst ardent movie-goers, so why would Clara Benson not have known about it, if she was around then?
The economic style also feels convincing. Modern authors when attempting to write about a past era are notoriously prone to over-doing it. And it’s easy to fall into two traps, (1) putting modern politically-correct values on a past era, or (2) going the other way, and in an attempt to be convincing, vastly over-doing the non-PC stuff. Also Clara’s characters seem to live in a bit of a bubble. There’s no sense of what year this is, very little mention of current events (a modern author would probably over-do that one too), and the only contemporary comment is Charles Knox voicing un-PC reservations about shell shock. This lack of date and detail does sound like the work of somebody who was just amusing her friends.
THEN AGAIN, am currently reading the 2nd book in the series, The Mystery At Underwood House, and there’s a thrilling sequence where Angela is dodging a sniper’s bullets in the woods, with references to survival skills she picked up during some mysterious stint in the Belgian forest (presumably during WW1), and this feels vaguely modern. Am not sure why, but it does. I’m not saying women of that era didn’t do things like that, but hmm, not sure. BUT, it may be that Clara was creating a heroine her friends could admire, and what better than a courageous woman who’s had a life of adventure.
Now of course, you can argue, that what does it ruddy well matter when the author lived, as long as you enjoy her books? Well good point. But I would like it cleared up. If it’s a publicity stunt, then fair does, it’s a good one, BUT no one likes to be taken for a mug y’know. If Clara really was born in 1890, then give us some more detail about her life. There is a website devoted to her, but it tells us virtually nothing. Who was she? Where was she born? Where did she live? Did she get married? Have children? How many manuscripts did she write? There are 9 published so far, but I get the feeling there is more to come. Did the family find a whole attic stuffed full of unpublished manuscripts?? Or is there some 21st century author out there, busily knocking these out on their laptop, and wondering (like the rest of us) why she/he can’t claim credit for their work?
The books are enjoyable, and I hope the rest of the series is as good as the first two, but come on, out with it for goodness sake!
ADDENDUM: Having just begun reading the 3rd book in the series, The Treasure At Poldarrow Point (which has a very Famous 5/Girl’s Own feel to it), I’m going to make the bold assertion that I think Clara Benson was the real deal. I find it very hard to believe that any modern author could create a child character as hearty and annoying as Angela’s niece, Barbara … and live to the tell the tale. Plus Barbara hitch-hikes from London to Cornwall without telling anyone, and there is no concern whatsoever about the danger of her doing so, which you would certainly expect from a modern author. Even one writing a book set in the 1920s would probably feel duty-bound (rightly) for the need to point out the dangers, even if it’s only someone tearing a strip off Barbara for being so reckless.
ADDENDUM2 (this could run and run): Have read some criticism that there isn’t enough anti-Semitism for the books to be of that era. Well I’m sure not everybody back then was rabidly anti-Jewish! In The Provincial Lady books, which were from the early 1930s, the narrator finds herself seated next to a boorish old man at a dinner-party. He brags about a posh drinking-club where Jews are banned. The Provincial Lady writes that this scarcely reflects credit on the club. Then there is the charge that there isn’t enough snobbery and class division for them to be realistic. It is true that Angela has an excellent working relationship with her French maid, Marthe. But I was only reminded of E F Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels, in which Mr Georgie relies heavily on his trusty maid, Foljambe, and Lucia has Grosvenor her housekeeper.
Others have tried to claim that Clara Benson must really have been a man, as a woman of that era would not create such a strong, adventurous character as Angela (gimme strength!!!). Again, I beg to differ. Agatha Christie’s novels from that era are stuffed full of daring, resourceful young women, who are all out to have adventures (Tuppence, in the Tommy & Tuppence series for starters, let alone Anna in The Man In The Brown Suit, Katherine in The Mystery of the Blue Train, and Bundle in The Seven Dials Mystery, all from the 1920s). This was the era of the Flapper, where women cut their hair, wore short dresses, drove cars, drank cocktails, and generally shook off the shackles of their forebears. Angela as a fictional heroine of the Jazz Age would have fitted in well.
Meanwhile, I guess we should all just get on and enjoy these excellent stories.
ADDENDUM3 (told you): Some controversy about the atomic energy plot in The Incident At Fives Castle. How could she have known about that in 1928? I’m not a scientist, so you’ll have to bear with me, but I did a bit of browsing around. Apparently H G Wells came up with the idea in The World Set Free, published in 1914, speculating that it could be dropped from planes (which CB quotes in Fives, when Miss Fo gives Angela a copy of it to read). Winston Churchill – who was a fan of H G Wells – wrote a magazine article in 1924, about the fearful potential of such a weapon, under the headline Shall We All Commit Suicide?