Tuesday, 22 August 2006

The Blotting-book

Fiction ~ novel/novella
Published August 1908
36,800 words
(First read 22/08/2006)

I need to read this one again to give a full appraisal: my 'review' at the time was very sketchy: 
7/10.  Despite this being a detective story ('crime story' would be more accurate, as precious little visible detecting takes place), I found it highly enjoyable, though it was more for its old-fashioned Edwardian charm than the crime stuff.  Needless to say, I didn't get the crime part once it was explained.

The book is available online here.


The Blotting Book […] by E F Benson, will come as a surprise to readers who have followed the comparatively even tenour of this author's way. The title is non-committal, but brings to mind The Book of Months. The first few pages open up the possibility of a tale in the Dodo vein. But gradually the truth dawns ~ this story is a fresh venture. The affairs of Morris Assheton, who does not attain majority until the age of twenty-five, but gains control of his fortune if he marries after the age of twenty-two, have been left entirely in the hands of Mr Taynton, the family solicitor. It is soon made clear that this apparently honest and genial man has gambled [a]way much of the fortune entrusted to his care. He has every wish to replace the money, for his chief instinct is self-preservation, and is just risking the remnants of the money in a scheme which has every chance of recouping him, when Morris places all in danger by falling in love. Taynton persuades his partner and accomplice, Mills, to slander Morris to Lord Templeton and so prevent an engagement. Shortly after this Mills is murdered, and suspicion points to Morris as his murderer, for he has discovered that he has slandered him, and been greatly enraged. Taynton, who has quarrelled with his partner and has actually killed him, builds up a case so cleverly against Morris that it seems certain he will be convicted. But a trifling slip betrays Taynton. He has forged a threatening letter from Morris to Mills, and blotted it in a blotting book which was not bought until some days after the purported date of the letter. From this the counsel for the defence is able to trace Taynton's movements and clear Morris, but the unhappy solicitor, who, having carried through a successful coup and restored Morris's fortune is now free from the fear that his defalcations will be discovered, escapes the ends of justice by suicide. Mr Benson has built up his story with much ingenuity. The personality of Taynton and the fears which drove him into crime are excellently suggested, and the other characters also fall naturally into their places. An adroit management of detail accounts quite lucidly both for the mystery and its unravelling. Without any of the usual paraphernalia of the book of this class Mr Benson has given us an interesting story. But when he could have given us a much more interesting story on his own lines was The Blotting Book worth the trouble? We are accustomed to the Bensonian manner and resent its absence.
~The Manchester Courier, 05/08/1908

[…] The Blotting Book [...] describes the devilish ingenuity with which a middle-aged barrister, of hitherto spotless reputation, contrived to cast suspicion upon his young client of having committed a murder which was in fact his own work. He was exceeding clever, but, as the event turned out, too clever for his own safety. Skillful detective work discovered the truth by means of the very things he had done to conceal his traces. The story deals chiefly with the crime and the trial; we wish the detection of the criminal had been treated in a less sketchy manner.
~The Outlook, 19/09/1908
There is more genuine workmanship in this slight detective story than in half the toilsome novels of the day, and everyone who can appreciate neat, effective, and finished artistry will enjoy to the full this clever and admirably constructed story. The story is 'the real thing'--life as it is, and crime as it occurs.
~The Daily Telegraph, quoted in endpapers to Juggernaut 
The Blotting Book (1908) is much shorter than any of the previous novels, being in fact a long short story, and it is quite different in style and purpose.  This attractive little book, still available nearly a century later, is a clever piece of detective fiction with the obligatory surprise ending.  It cannot have taken Fred more than a weekend to write ...
~Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991
This little 1908 novel is the story of a murder; rather unexpected from E.F. Benson [...]. Morris Assheton is a young man from a wealthy background; his inheritance is held in trust until his twenty-fifth birthday, unless he marries before that date. The trustees are Mr Taynton and Mr Mills, the family solicitors. Mr Taynton is an agreeable, avuncular sort; charitable, religious and fond of his routines, he contrasts with the much pricklier Mr Mills. Beneath the surface, however, they are more alike, since they have made some ill-advised speculations with Morris's money, hoping for personal profits. When it becomes clear that Morris is in love, and likely to marry, Taynton becomes alarmed. Can he buy enough time to restore Morris's inheritance, ensure his reputation and his prospects for a comfortable retirement?
The novel is set in Brighton
[...] and many of the locations are still recognisable, although the murder scene, a quiet path over the downs from Falmer to Brighton, is much less rural nowadays and probably less conducive to violent crime. Benson's book is not really a whodunit ~ it's fairly obvious who the murderer is ~ but it still makes use of typical tools of the genre. Letters, railway timetables, calendars and the eponymous blotting book are all either clues or misdirections. Again, while the book doesn't include the psychological analysis you get in Golden Age detective fiction, it is interested in the boundaries between fantasy, memory and forgetting.
I thought Benson could have done more with the character of Mrs Assheton, Morris's mother
~ she felt very undeveloped to me, particularly in the context of Benson's more famous female characters ~ and the mouth-breathing Superintendent Figgis is a caricature. But the social milieu ~ upper-class luxury on the Edwardian scale ~ is very well evoked, and the book is an enjoyable, if slight, read. [...]
~Tanya Izzard at 20th Century Vox, 23/12/2011

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