Monday, October 19, 2015

Clara Benson’s “The Murder at Sissingham Hall”

It’s a murder mystery story by something of a mystery author.

According to her biography on both Amazon and Good Reads, Clara Benson was a rather upper class Englishwoman born in 1890 who wrote a series of mysteries during the golden age of murder mysteries – the 1920s and 1930s. She never published them, considering the manuscripts to be only a hobby. Even her family apparently knew nothing of them until long after her death in 1965. Almost 50 years later, in 2013, the family began to publish the stories.

So far, nine have been published in the last two years or so, and another is in the works. They have all been published in ebook format only.

Perhaps it’s the lack of biographical detail, or the impression that the first novel in the series reads less like one written in the 1920s and more like someone undertook a huge amount of research about English country life in the 1920s. There’s something that seems a bit too contemporary for this to have been written 90 years ago.

So I have my suspicions. Clara Benson may not be Clara Benson at all.

In The Murder at Sissingham Hall, Charles Know, a youngish man returning to his native England after eight years of making his fortune in South Africa, is invited for a long weekend at Sissinghurst Hall, the home of Sir Neville Strickland and his wife Rosamund. Rosamund is the reason Charles left England in the first place; she broke off their engagement without much explanation.

It’s the almost stereotypical English house party so familiar in the Agatha Christie mysteries. Well-to-do people gathered together, passions running as a strong undercurrent beneath the brittle surface, and then a murder. In this case, the victim is Sir Neville. And most of the guests have a potential motive – the relative who is going to be written out of the will and his rather shallow wife; Rosamund Strickland; Charles Knox; and the niece, the secretary, and a flock of servants. Another guest is a friend of Rosamund’s, Angela Marchmont, who turns out to be something of an amateur sleuth and will help the police solve the murder.

What’s surprising is that the novel is described as the first of the Angela Marchmont mysteries, and the character has a relatively small role in this particular story. Charles Knox serves as the narrator for the entire book.

The Murder at Sissingham Hall is an enjoyable, classic 1920s-type mystery. And notice I said “type,” because I remain unconvinced that Clara Benson was a real person.

Photograph by Lynn Greyling via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. 


Peggy Ann said...

I've looked at these books in passing and have to admit that the story of how they came to be intrigued me. Now that you stated you don't believe it, I might have to really check them out. Thanks for the good review!

Grace said...

I started reading Clara Benson books and have made it up to the Riddle at Gipsy's Mile, but I just couldn't shake the same feeling that these just don't read like books written during the 20s and 30s by an amateur writer writing for her own pleasure. I got even more suspicious when I went to and the one paragraph backstory not only wasn't embellished, but wasn't even there. Way too unbelievable. Why would the family who had stumbled onto this little gold mine not broadcast the story with pictures everywhere they could.

On GoodReads, there was a commenter who said that the real author has finally 'fessed up, because he wants to release a new series of mysteries. I haven't been able to corroborate that, but I find it much more believable somehow than the backstory we've been given. I'm sorry the author and publisher misled the readers. I think it's kind of a shabby trick.