Seesaw sympathies

Brighton Front (postcard image: Old UK photos)

E F Benson:
The Blotting Book
Vintage Classics 2013 (1908)

Set partly in Brighton and partly in Falmer (on the road east to Lewes, East Sussex) this crime novel — less a whodunit, more a courtroom drama — is a stylish period piece, an Edwardian mystery with just a hint of the supernatural in the guise of a prophetic dream. In a way this novella doesn’t quite make up its mind what kind of genre it intends to be so includes a bit of everything, even including a bit of financial advice along the lines of *the value of your investments may go down as well as up*.

The essential plot is so simple that to do more than recount the basic set-up would be to give the game away. Let me introduce the two lawyer partnership based in Brighton of Edward Taynton and Godfrey Mills. Then let’s meet two of their clients, the widow Mrs Assheton and her son Morris, a young man soon to be of age, a ‘racey’ chap who likes fast cars. Morris hopes to be engaged to Madge Templeton, daughter of Sir Richard and Lady Templeton.

When one of these individuals disappears an Inspector Figgis gets involved, and when matters eventually come to court we finally learn not so much who-did-what as how-it-all-happened, amidst all the to and fro of legal proceedings and timely revelations. Fraud, gambling, blackmail, slander, forgery, murder — it’s all here, but as this involves the upper middle classes rest assured that it’s mostly quite genteel, there’s little or no gratuitous violence and the lower classes know their place.

Benson is interested in character, particularly that of two individuals: the lawyer Taynton and Morris Assheton. We view the action through their eyes, along with their emotional states, but here’s the rub: there are discrepancies in the respective accounts that the author allows us to glimpse. One or other must be an unreliable witness, and the reader’s sympathies may well seesaw from one to another.

Here the blotting book of the title becomes both a key fulcrum in the plotting and a symbol indicating that a reversed image can be misleading — or reflect the truth. At a time when inkwells and fountain pens are rapidly becoming incomprehensible to new generations, the importance of blotting paper a century ago cannot be underestimated, when a handsome blotting book may well have been a suitable birthday present.

As a novella this is a narrative of two unequal halves. The first part sets up the premise and the flawed characters, playing with the reader, inviting us to invest sympathy in first one then another, right up to when the police investigation yields results. The second part focuses on the court procedure following an inquest, with the case for the prosecution succeeded by the defence, all infused by a leavening of humour. While we may well guess the guilty party before the final reveal, Benson’s feints makes cat’s paws of any unsuspecting readers.

Finally, The Blotting Book opens a window onto the early years of the 20th-century: the life of a privileged class serviced by an underclass; formal, almost regimented, daily routines and a rigid sense of propriety; railways and horse carriages starting to be challenged as everyday transport by the novelty of private cars. How much society has altered in the interim, how much material has disappeared, and yet how little has intrinsic human nature changed!

Brighton – Sussex Square (1904) (postcard image: Hurley Skidmore History, Australia)

10 thoughts on “Seesaw sympathies

  1. Glad you enjoyed it! Not much of a mystery, but I enoyed the character studies, especially Edward. I suppose today’s equivalent of blotting paper clues would be checking someone’s texts – but somehow it doesn’t have the same romance…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yours was one of two recent reviews that convinced me it was worth a try! I thought that the way Benson invited us to sympathise with a fraudster and, ultimately, a murderer was well done. Unlike with Highsmith’s Ripley, who literally did get away with murder, our Edwardian protagonist must be seen to not profit from his crime–the time was not yet right for guilty parties to be seen to evade punishment.

      Checking texts? Impossible, one would have to find a way to hack phones — oh, wait…

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope it’s of some help. There’s an unstated subtext about unmarried bachelors that some commentators have detected, related to Benson’s own closet homosexuality, but I don’t think that need distract from the story.

      Liked by 1 person

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