Wednesday, 19 March 2008

The Mystery of Margot Bennett

Why did Margot Bennett never publish a crime novel after winning the CWA’s ultimate accolade in 1959? It’s baffling, not least because her success with Someone from the Past wasn’t a one-off. She’d built a career of genuine achievement.

Bennett was born in 1912 in Scotland; she worked as an advertising copywriter in Europe and Australia, and as a nurse during the Spanish Civil War. Her first novel, Time to Change Hats (1945) was much acclaimed, and was followed by another enjoyable detective story, Away Went the Little Fish. After that, she really got into her stride with the ingenious The Widow of Bath, which was admired by Julian Symons, a great advocate of Bennett’s excellence.

Farewell Crown and Good-Bye King concerns the hunt for a missing financier; it is a slight disappointment, because the key plot twist is not too difficult to figure out. The Man Who Didn’t Fly poses a terrific puzzle: four men were supposed to travel on a flight, but when the plane crashed, only three had boarded it. Who was the fourth man – who has also vanished – and why didn’t he take the flight?

At the age of 47, and with the CWA Award under her belt, why would Bennett give up on crime? It may have had something to do with money: she did write for television in the 60s, contributing episodes to ‘Maigret’ and ‘Emergency Ward Ten’. She may have lost interest in the genre – she wrote two non-criminous novels, again in the sixties, but they made little impact. And she also published The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Atomic Radiation in 1964 (did she think that unintelligent women wouldn’t be interested?) But none of this explains adequately why she abandoned crime when she reached the heights. She was once quoted as saying: ‘All through my books, the best I have done is to make the people real.’ It’s no mean feat.

And yet she isn’t alone in going out at the top – Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley are two even more illustrious writers who gave up on crime novels long before they died and when, one would have thought, they still had plenty to offer.

Thought-provoking, isn't it?

14 comments:

Juliet said...

The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Atomic Radiation must be one of the best book titles of all time! It raises almost as many questions as your post. Was she intending to follow up with an abridged, illustrated version for Really Thick Women? Is women's understanding of atomic radiation so very different from men's that they need a whole book addressing the subject from their point of view? How many women, on seeing this advertised in 1964 thought, 'gosh, I MUST get my hands on that one straight away'? Or perhaps it was marketed at men, so they could give it as a gift to their wives: 'here's the new set of biscuit cutters you wanted, darling, and a box of luxury embroidered handkerchieves, oh, and a guide to Atomic Radiation which I know you'll simply adore'.

The mind boggles.

And the world of 1964 suddenly seems a Very Long Time Ago!

Shuku said...

It's definitely thought-provoking. I wonder though, if it has to do less with the writer's ability than the writer's knowing (or at least perceiving) that anything else in that genre they were to write would be less than their best. For someone who spends so much time trying to craft the best possible world out of words and imagery, the knowledge that it would be second-best work might be more intolerable than not writing.

By the by, I got hold of a copy of Jo Nesbo's 'The Redbreast'. It's a -fascinating- read, even if I have to take notes of dates and characters as I go!

--Shuku

maxine said...

Fascinating. I had never heard of her (to my knowledge). Is it still possible to obtain her books, and if so, would you recommend one in particular?

Martin Edwards said...

Juliet, great comment - you've said it all!

Shuku - writers can sometimes be hard - too hard - on themselves, as you indicate. The 'second best' point is interesting. Some creative geniuses who have achieved great success - in the music field, say, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon and Burt Bacharach - have continued to create long after their commercial heyday was past. But Berkeley, Sayers and Bennett simply gave up. It seems odd to me. Perhaps because I've never achieved their level of success, I feel driven to keep going.

Maxine - Abebooks is always worth a look. The most recent reprint, I think, is The Man Who Didn't Fly. I wrote an introduction to the Chivers Black Dagger edition in 1993.

Xavier said...

Trivia section: the Man Who Didn't Fly was nominated for the Edgar in 1956, losing to Charlotte Armstrong's A Dram of Poison.

Martin Edwards said...

Xavier, I haven't read the Armstrong book, but if it really was better than Bennett's, it must be pretty good!

Xavier said...

Xavier, I haven't read the Armstrong book, but if it really was better than Bennett's, it must be pretty good!

Well, I don't know whether it is better since I haven't read (yet) The Man Who Didn't Fly, but it is definetely as unusual. And yes it's pretty good. After reading it you won't ever look at an olive-oil bottle the same way again...

kura said...

"The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Atomic Radiation" is a nod to a much earlier work by Bernard Shaw, "The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism".
I'm from New Zealand and hoping to find out about the time Margot Bennett spent in my country as a young woman (in the early 1930s). She wrote a book set on an NZ sheep farm, "That Summer's Earthquake", which indicates a degree of direct experience of NZ life at that time. Does she have any descendants? Has anyone written about her early life?

Martin Edwards said...

Hello Kura. Margot Bennett fascinates me as a writer, but I have found it difficult to learn any more about her life. I hope you have more luck, and if you do, please let me know what you find out about her!

Anonymous said...

Margot Bennett was my aunt and she did go to New Zealand from Sydney while a young woman in her 20s (?)to stay with older friends of my mother Jean Morrison Miller, who were Stuart and Ellie Gilbertson. It was there that she experienced the earthquake which formed the basis of her last book, That Summer's Earthquake. Unfortunately I don't know where the Gilbertsons were located. I am trying to find her children in London, Caroline the eldest daughter in particular who lived in Ireland as Caroline Thewell. Any assistance would be appreciated. JED

Martin Edwards said...

Hello, JED. I'd be glad to help if I can. Since I wrote this post, I've become archivist of the Detection Club and I'm trying to gather info about former members. Please can you email me at
martinedwards10@btconnect.com

Polly said...

Hi there I am Margot Bennetts granddaughter and as such have copies of and read most of the books. Caroline Bennett, her daughter lives with us. A friend pointed me to this page and I'd be happy for JED to get in touch.

Martin Edwards said...

Polly, thanks. I too would love to learn more about MB and hope you can contact me to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Dear Polly, I had given up expecting a response to my comment but my niece alerted me to your comment last November. I am so delighted and hope we can make personal contact. I am emailing Martin again with my contact details. I am keen to hear how your side of my mother's family is, especially Caroline whom I met in London a couple of times in the 80s when I was a post-grad student there. Hope we can make personal contact. All best wishes JED