Here's a century-old mystery whose title may still be familiar to lovers of traditional detective stories - and yet one whose age may have caused potential readers to decide against trying to read it: Trent's Last Case, by E. C. Bentley. I think that refusal is a mistake. The audio review I gave this book a decade ago makes a determined effort to change that reluctant reader's mind. Here's what I wrote (edited to update, mostly about the fact that the book is indeed still available, in the same Dover edition, as when I originally reviewed it):
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In the earliest days of the detective story, the detectives rarely, if ever, made mistakes. Their friends made mistakes (think: Watson). The police made mistakes (think: Lestrade or Gregson). But not Sherlock Holmes. And then, in 1913, along came E. C. Bentley, an author who felt that detective stories were too artificial, the detectives too perfect. So he gave us Philip Trent – and Trent’s Last Case.
It has now been 104 years since the first appearance of Trent’s Last Case, but I have to say, it remains a refreshing, funny and exciting book to read. Philip Trent is a very likeable young man – a special correspondent for a British newspaper, who specializes in solving cases where the official police don’t seem to have been successful.
Trent is sent by his editor to tackle the case of a murdered financier. He is successful in spotting a number of clues which the police have missed – and he comes up with a brilliant and ingenious solution to the crime which had baffled the official detectives.
The only trouble is – his solution is completely wrong. And Trent discovers there are more levels of subtlety at work in this case than he had suspected.
According to the introduction [by Douglas G. Greene] to the Dover paperback edition – which is still in print – Agatha Christie called Trent’s Last Case one of the best detective stories ever written. The device which is central to the book – the brilliant solution to the crime, which is superseded by a different solution – only to be followed by a third (and correct) solution – was used later by many of the great detective story writers; many of Ellery Queen’s books, for example, use this device.
The same is true with the other central device – the notion of the fallible detective. The Dover introduction quotes Bentley’s autobiography. Speaking about Trent’s Last Case, Bentley wrote, “It should be possible, I thought, to write a detective story in which the detective was recognizable as a human being.” I think he succeeded. Philip Trent is an eminently likeable human being – and when he slips into error, he finds there is a price to be paid.
It is also pleasant to find that the official investigator in this book – Inspector Murch – is a sharp and intelligent law officer. The book tells us that he and Trent have worked together before and both respect and like each other – and that’s a refreshing change from too many amateur detective stories. Moreover, Trent admits, on some occasions, Murch has gotten to the true solution before Trent. That’s good to hear, isn’t it?
So, too, is the change in Trent’s attitude over the course of the case. When he first hears of it, he is cheerful, even exuberant, at the chance to show off his skills. His speech is light; he can be as fatuous as the early Lord Peter Wimsey, and he peppers his speech with quotations – some of them, as the Dover introduction duly notes, misquoted.
But as the case develops, and Trent finds himself involved more deeply – even falling in love with one of the characters – he becomes more sober, more introspective. When his solution, brilliantly cobbled together from scraps of information duly shared with the reader, seems to point to a particular suspect, he is sufficiently upset to suppress the information. It is only when he is proved wrong that he is flooded with relief – and the final twists of this story make him promise to himself that he has solved his last case.
I should point out again that the story was written in 1913 – and the attitudes, particularly from the central characters, are those of the Edwardian era. There are ominous rumblings from the European mainland, for we are approaching the beginning of World War I. It’s also important to remember that the British class system was very firmly in place at that time, and that is reflected in some of the speech and mannerisms of the characters – sometimes in language that those of us reading it a century later may find offensive. But those are minor points. On the whole, in fact, the book reflects what were, for the time, very enlightened social points of view. The victim, for example, is an American financier and industrialist who has been absolutely ruthless, even vicious, in his dealings with his workers. His death, in fact, causes a panic in the financial markets, of a type that probably would not happen today. I think it’s worth listening to Bentley’s opening paragraphs here, which may give you some feeling for his views:
Between what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely?
When the scheming, indomitable brain of Sigsbee Manderson was scattered by a shot from an unknown hand, that world lost nothing worth a single tear; it gained something memorable in a harsh reminder of the vanity of such wealth as this dead man had piled up – without making one loyal friend to mourn him, without doing an act that could help his memory by the least honour. But when the news of his end came, it seemed to those living in the great vortices of business as if the earth too shuddered under a blow.
That’s a nice description, and the book’s prose, if a bit stilted – again, the Edwardian influence – is quite good and quite readable. We find ourselves caring very much about Trent – and about so many of the other characters. E. C. Bentley set out to write a detective story that would make us see fictional detectives differently – and he certainly succeeded here; we can only sympathize and nod when Trent says to a friend, near the end of the book, after his theories have collapsed, “what an ass a man can make of himself when he thinks he’s being preternaturally clever.” I think that we, as readers, will agree – we’ve seen it far too often in some of the more self-satisfied fictional detectives. Trent’s Last Case, by E. C. Bentley, is a refreshingly different detective story. As I said earlier, there is a paperback edition of it still in print, and your local bookseller (or Amazon) should be able to provide it to you. It’s well worth your while.
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I should note that Trent's Last Case is out of copyright (as far as I know), and I'm sure there are low- or even non-existent-cost e-book versions. I do think it's worth springing for the Dover edition, with its introduction by Douglas G. Greene.
You can listen to my original audio review by clicking here.
Next week: Nipped in the Bud, a Hildegarde Withers mystery by Stuart Palmer.