I have always had a soft spot for English country house mysteries, and when these classics by Clara Benson became available in ebook form, I happily immersed myself. Benson, born in 1890, never published during her lifetime, but considered writing a hobby. Her family discovered her stories years after her death in 1965 and decided it was time to introduce the work to readers. Benson’s mysteries, set in the 1920s, feature amateur detective Angela Marchmont, an American visiting friends in England. Mrs. Marchmont is much more than she appears, having served as a spy in The Great War, and possessing a quick wit and well-developed intellect.
Several books in the Marchmont series have been released, with these being the first two. In both, Mrs. Marchmont is called on by an old friend to investigate dastardly murders. In the first, Murder at Sissingham Hall, Mrs. Marchmont is on hand during a country house weekend when her host, Sir Neville Strickland, is found murdered. The obvious suspect is Charles Knox, recently returned, former fiancé to the current Mrs. Strickland. Mrs. Marchmont untangles multiple threads of deception to finally reveal a most unexpected culprit.
In The Mystery at Underwood House, Mrs. Marchmont is called upon by an old friend, Louisa Haynes, who brother-in-law and two sisters-in-law have died in consecutive years during an annual family reunion required under the terms of the patriarch, Phillip Haynes, will. The “accidents” which claimed the lives of the Haynes siblings have begun to arouse suspicion, and Louisa asks her old friend to investigate. Multiple wills, a devious family attorney, and an illegitimate grandchild all contribute to Mrs. Marchmont’s task to uncover the truth before another Haynes is murdered.
The writing here isn’t bad but it isn’t great either. Given the fact that Benson considered herself an amateur and did not have the advantage of an editor at a publishing house, I expected these to be pleasant country house murder mysteries and I was not disappointed. Mrs. Marchmont strikes me as Nancy Drew all grown up and full of ladylike cleverness, which works here. These are comfortable, well-constructed, if predictable, mysteries that will appeal to fans of Maisie Dobbs and, at a stretch, Phryne Fisher. Recommended for people looking for an easy, pleasant mystery.