Clara Benson is the author of the Angela Marchmont mysteries and Freddy Pilkington-Soames Adventures – traditional English mysteries in authentic style set in the 1920s and 30s. One day she would like to drink cocktails and solve mysteries in a sequinned dress and evening gloves. In the meantime she lives in the north of England with her family and doesn’t do any of those things.
WHEN I FIRST SET OUT, SOME YEARS AGO, to write a book, the thought that was foremost in my mind was that I should write the kind of book I like to read. I have been a rabid devotee of traditional (or ‘Golden Age’) mystery fiction for as long as I can remember; I spent my formative years devouring the entire works of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Patricia Wentworth et al, and what I really wanted was more of the same. It wasn’t just the mysteries I loved; I was also fascinated by the tantalising glimpses they gave of life and society in the 1920s and 1930s—and glimpses they were, nothing more, because the authors were writing for their contemporaries and had no need to explain their surroundings, which would already be well understood by readers.
This is where historical fiction generally differs from the ‘real thing.’ However skillfully done, there will always be something slightly self-conscious about a historical novel, since to please the reader the author must weave large amounts of research into the story. Thus, you will always find far more period detail in a modern-day historical novel than you will in a story written at the time—far more description of the cars, the fashions, the hairstyles, etc, to satisfy readers who want to be transported back to the era in question. Just to give a simple and obvious example: a reader in 1926 would know automatically that whenever a character went outside, he would be wearing a hat. This would be so obvious to everyone that an author of the time would be unlikely to mention it. By contrast, since hardly anyone wears hats these days, a present-day writer of historical novels will tend to dwell on the hat.
In writing the Angela Marchmont novels, my aim was not to produce a work of historical fiction, but rather to reproduce as faithfully as I could the tone and style of those original Golden Age works, since I was sure there must be many mystery fans who wished for more ‘genuine’ Golden Age novels, just as I did. In an attempt to make the experience more immersive for readers (and also, I admit, because, like many writers, I am uncomfortable with public attention), I decided to write ‘in character’ as Clara Benson, an author of the 1920s. It was a sort of challenge to myself, to see whether I could do it convincingly. I had no idea whether my little conceit would pass muster, but since I was certain nobody would buy the book anyway, I didn’t think too hard about it.
The result of my efforts was The Murder at Sissingham Hall. I published it online in March 2013, complete with fictitious back story, and forgot about it for a few days. When I next looked I found it had sold about ten copies. By the middle of April it had sold a thousand and I began to think I had better dust off its sequel, The Mystery at Underwood House, which I had begun and half-abandoned. By the time I published the second book I was enjoying writing Angela’s adventures so much that I could not stop. I had planned to write three or four and then abandon the Clara Benson pen name without ever admitting to it, but events overtook me somewhat, and I found myself keeping the series going for far longer than I had originally intended. We are now at Book 10, The Shadow at Greystone Chase, and I’m sure I need not say that I have been absolutely astonished and overwhelmed at the response from readers. It has given me the greatest pleasure to discover that people seem to love Angela and her friends as much as I do. I might have kept the series going longer, but I hate to see a character outstay her welcome, and so I decided to give Angela an adventure of her own and then send her off happily into the sunset. (Concerned readers who have been paying attention may have noticed that she returns to America in the summer of 1929. As a stockbroker she is going to be far too busy in the next few months to investigate any mysteries, even if she wanted to—although she has been astute enough to sell the company for cash, and so with any luck will ride out the crisis without too many losses.)
But if the series has ended, why, then, have I decided to admit to my little fiction now? There are a number of reasons. The first is that I was never entirely comfortable with it to start with—which is part of the reason I gave so little information about the mythical Clara Benson, since I was reluctant to compound the deception. The second is that many people guessed anyway. The third—and perhaps the most important—is the fact that I am unable to abandon this pen name owing to a certain Mr. Frederick Pilkington-Soames, who is a young man with a great sense of his own importance, and who wants to know why, if Angela has had one, he can’t have his own series too? Since Freddy is well versed in the art of persuasion, I find myself unable to refuse him, and since it would be a little too much to believe that the long-dead Clara Benson left yet another series in a trunk in the attic, I have decided to come clean. Freddy will have his series and I will stop pretending to be dead. It wasn’t much fun anyway.
Not wishing to outstay my own welcome either, I’ll stop now, but before I go I would just like to say a heartfelt thank-you to all my readers. Your support has meant everything to me, and if I have managed to help you pass a pleasant hour or two with my stories, then it has all been worth while. Thank you.