Monday, 16 June 2014

The Murder at Sissingham Hall by Clara Benson

published 2012

[Narrator Charles, who has been travelling, has been met at Southampton by old friends]

It dawned upon me suddenly who she was and I started in surprise. ‘Sylvia!’ I exclaimed. ‘I hardly recognized you. Good heavens! I had no idea you had grown up. Have I really been away that long?’

When I had last seen Bobs’s sister, she had been an ungainly schoolgirl with a grubby face and a reckless disregard for the state of her clothes; quite different from the smart, fashionable young woman standing in front of me now. I could not help staring at her, 

astonished at how much she had changed. She flushed slightly and pulled a face, which immediately brought to memory the tom-boy she had once been and I laughed. We all stood there for a few moments, grinning foolishly at each other as the crowd flowed around us.

observations: I picked up this book after reading about the series on a Golden Age Detection discussion page. There’s a Clara Benson website which says this:

Clara Benson was born in 1890 and as a young woman wrote several novels featuring Angela Marchmont. She was unpublished in her lifetime, preferring to describe her writing as a hobby, and it was not until many years after her death in 1965 that her family rediscovered her work and decided to introduce it to a wider audience.
The conversation amongst the Golden Age fans was on whether this could possibly be true. So naturally I decided to try one of the books, and form my own opinion. (I got mine free, and the books are available at very reasonable prices on Kindle.)

I enjoyed the book, although I didn’t have any trouble solving the murder, and the amateur sleuth – Angela Marchmont – was quite appealing. It was nicely written, and the atmosphere was rather Agatha-Christie-like: mistrust, overheard conversations, the use of a story from the past to unnerve someone.

However I would not think for a moment that it was written in the 1920s (when it is set): the dialogue was not convincing for that era, nor were the manners of the main participants. And most of all there was this: 

‘…Do you remember Lili Le Sueur?... She wanted to star in pictures…. I suppose she has got fat and lost her looks by now.’ 
Lucille LeSueur is the birth name of a very famous Hollywood star, and it is asking too much to believe that this fictional young man’s fancy shared the name.

But Benson gets points for having a hero who says this about shell shock:

I had never been much of a believer in it myself but it seemed useless to argue…
Modern protagonists in historical books are usually firmly on the side of feminism and socialism, are very anti-war, and tend to have advanced (and frankly unlikely views) on a range of issues such as mental health and sexual freedom. But I think this particular case is a credit to the writer, avoiding the trap, not a sign of authentic age. [To be clear, not because I don't believe in shell shock, but because the author resisted the temptation to give her hero modern views.]

So – my verdict is that the cover story is exactly that, a story, but as a pastiche it wasn’t bad.

The pictures are from a schoolgirl annual of 1927.


  1. Moira - It does sound like a decent story even if there are some things that are too much to believe. Sometimes it's fun to 'dive in' to a story like this if you know what you're getting. And the Agatha Christie sort of atmosphere and context already has me interested...

    1. I suppose the 'lost story' claims are good PR - they certainly got me interested! And it was a good enough read....

  2. Interesting, had not heard of this before. It would have to be awfully good for me to read something that pretends to have been written at a different time.

    1. I suppose the trick worked on me, in the sense that I read it so I could try to decide if it was real or fake. But I can't honestly say that you should be getting hold of it.

    2. That was the message I got from your post. If I could notice discrepancies, it might be fun, but the ones you noted I would never have caught. That probably means that someone did a good job with it... but still. Don't like someone trying to fake it.