Written by EF Benson — You can tell at once the age of this book by its title: who in the 21st century knows what a blotting book is? Who, indeed, even uses a fountain pen nowadays? This mystery novel was written just over 100 years ago, and yet there are many aspects of it which feel fresh and relevant to the contemporary reader. EF Benson was a versatile and prolific writer of the first half of the 20th century, and passed away in 1940. He may be better known for his humorous Mapp and Lucia series or for his atmospheric ghost stories, but this short crime novel is a quirky, charming curiosity rescued from oblivion by Vintage Books.
First of all, we should point out that it does not quite follow modern crime writing conventions. This is not so much a whodunnit, as a ‘whydunit’ and a ‘will-the-murderer-get-away-with-it?’. The cards are pretty much laid on the table from the outset. Modern readers will miss the tension and suspense generated in good contemporary novels, but The Blotting Book is full of psychological insight.
Morris Assheton is a delightful, if somewhat impulsive young man, who seems to lead a charmed life. He has just recently graduated from Cambridge and returned to live with his mother in Brighton. He is independently wealthy, as his father left a trust fund for him in the care of their family lawyer, Mr Taynton. Morris has just purchased a fast motor car and fallen in love – and he intends to get married as soon as possible. Then he discovers that Mr Taynton’s business partner, sly Mr Mills, has been spreading nasty rumours about him and that, as a consequence, his loved one’s family want nothing more to do with him. His fury knows no bounds, despite Mr Taynton’s efforts to calm him. A short while later, Mr Mills is found beaten to death on his way home from the railway station.
Part courtroom drama, part tale of double-crossing and blackmail, with a good sprinkling of psychological deviance, this is a light, pleasant read to while away a grey afternoon. You will find no fast-paced, choppy action scenes here. Instead, you will discover a well-modulated, elegant narrative voice, somewhat reminiscent of Henry James, in whose house in Sussex Benson lived for a while. There are too many priceless gems of close observation and humour to enumerate, but how can you not love a writer who says of a character that his ‘bald head beamed with benevolence and dinner’?
The Blotting book is short and isn’t all that gripping. It transports you to a different, very genteel era, yet is concerned with timeless human weaknesses such as envy, vanity and anger. Finally, what of the blotting book of the title? It is a vital clue, of course.
At the same time, Vintage has released The Luck of the Vails also by EF Benson – a much longer tome at 441 pages.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars