E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case
Trent’s Last Case was an instant bestseller when first published in 1913 and is still in print today. Bentley and his novel appear on The Telegraph’s 50 Crime Writers to Read Before You Die, The Mystery Writers of America’s Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time, and the British Crime Writers Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time.
The very title of the book introduces an element of suspense – why indeed is it Trent’s last case? Did he die solving it? E. C. Bentley’s novel is about treachery, intrigue, murder, and a surprising turn of events midway through the text. And this mystery story plays an important role in the history of the detective novel. As Leitch observes, Trent’s Last Case “established itself as the most influential detective novel between those of Arthur Conan Doyle and Dashiell Hammett” (1998, 41).
Bentley was firmly entrenched in the British mystery literary scene. This Oxford graduate dedicated Trent’s Last Case to his good friend, G. K. Chesterton (see my post on the Father Brown stories). John Buchan (see my post on The Thirty-Nine Steps) was also an important friend. Bentley was a founding member and subsequent President of the Detection Club, an organization to which leading British writers of the day belonged.
Although he was called to the bar in 1902, Bentley spent his life as a writer and journalist. Deputy editor of the Daily News, then long-time foreign affairs editor of the Daily Telegraph, Bentley also wrote light verse for Punch and a number of short stories and novels. But what he remains famous for today is Trent’s Last Case (originally published in the U.S. as The Lady in Black).
The novel opens with news of the murder of Sigsbee Manderson, a millionaire financier. Philip Trent, freelance journalist and amateur detective, is asked to solve it. Trent subsequently falls in love with Manderson’s widow, a prime suspect in the case. Nothing about the case makes logical sense; details of the murder seem puzzling and contradictory. The narrative is intriguing and contains more than one unexpected turn of events.
Bentley wrote the novel to parody detective conventions, but in turn created new conventions that influenced the direction of the genre. He objected to the infallible, superhuman nature of a detective such as Sherlock Holmes (see my post on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes). Hence he created a detective who is ordinary rather than extraordinary, a sleuth who makes mistakes. In fact Trent arrives at wrong conclusions not once, but twice, in the novel. Trent’s Last Case was “intended to reveal the unlikelihood of the detective’s arriving at the true solution to the crime, given the human limitations of the investigator and the exigencies of real life” (Rzepka 2005, 138).
Unlike Holmes who is egotistical and aloof, Trent is unpretentious, self-effacing, and affable. The narrator claims that this detective has the “power of getting himself liked” (51). Trent relies on imagination rather than logical detection to solve cases (113).
Although the novel combines romantic love and detection – a feature atypical of the time – it does introduce a number of conventions that later novelists adopted. The upper-class country house setting, the “rough sketch plan” of the murder room (3), the witty banter and light tone of the novel all become standard features of the Golden Age mystery. Trent also talks about the case as a “game,” one in which he and the inspector play “detective sportsmanship” (62). The artificiality of Golden Age mysteries can be traced to this depiction of murder as intellectual entertainment.
Leitch observes that Bentley “enshrined a world of gentlemanly, commonsensical values and class-bound moral certainties that the war would shatter” (1998, 47). Part of the attraction of the novel is the depiction of a world that has long ceased to exist.
Bentley, E. C. Trent’s Last Case. 1913. London: Arrowsmith, 1929.
Leitch, Thomas M. “E. C. Bentley (1875-1956).” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks, vol. 1: 41-49. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998.
Rzepka, Charles J. Detective Fiction. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005.