Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Trent's Last Case - Edmund C. Bentley, 1913

One of the most important pre-war detective novels was created for entertainment.
Edmund C. Bentley published Trent’s Last Case in 1913, to make his friend G.K. Chesterton, who was a great fan of mystery, happy.
We have to admit that Trent’s Last Case was a sort of divertissement,  a little parody of Conan Doyle’s detective novels.
The journalist and amateur sleuth Philip Trent was called by his newspaper to investigate the murder of a rich and hated businessman, Sigsbee Manderson. Trent is smart but not infallible, he is not able to solve the mystery and subsequently falls in love with Manderson’s widow, who is one of the suspects.
It’s apparent the influence of Eugene Valmont on Philip Trent. Valmont debuted in 1906 in The Triumphs of Eugene Valmont, book of tales written by Robert Barr.
Trent’s Last Case, even though it conveys the feeling of an extemporaneous literary experiment, it has the ability to create themes, situations and characters which will be clichĂ© in the Golden Age period: the murder of a rich but hated businessman, who had been killed before the beginning of the book; the villa as setting; the journalist-detective ready to solve the mystery basing his deductions on clues scattered the whole story; and, finally, an unexpected solution of the mystery. All these things are narrated by an enjoyable and elegant style of writing. 
This novel will influence authors such as Philip MacDonald and Anthony Berkeley, which make the debut in 1924 and 1925.
The writing of Bentley is ironic and sharp, even if in his prose lacks  the sense of paradox which is typical of G.K. Chesterton. Especially, Bentley is able to break the boundaries with the sensation novel: he takes out the sensational elements which characterized the Eighteen Century and he sets the ground for the detective story based on fair-play-puzzle, as claimed by Thomas Narcejac.
It’s hard to say who was the first to set the ground for a detective story like a game or a match between author and reader. Whether it was Bentley, Chesterton or Freeman, it’s complicated to say it for certain, but without doubt the moment was ripe between 1905 and 1914.
Howard Haycraft, in Murder for Pleasure (1941), deemed Trent’s Last Case as an essential link between the Romantic Era and the Golden Age of detective fiction, which began in 1920 with the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie and The Cask by Freeman W. Crofts. After Bentley, in the opinion of Haycraft, mystery writers had a better awareness of the differences between mystery and sensation novel.
However, the contemporary literary criticism has softened the enthusiasm about the Bentley’s novel observed in the thought of authors such as Sayers, Christie and many others during the 1920s: yet Carr, in 1946, wrote that Bentley had arrived after writers like Chesterton, Mason and Freeman. Then came the critics of Chandler and others, and also Keating didn’t include Trent’s Last Case in his 100 best crime novels list in 1986. 
In spite of everything, this novel can be defined an exciting tour de force, full of tricks and deceptions, that surprise the readers page after page. There are many holes, for sure, the minor characters are badly drawn, and one of them, Murch, suddenly disappears; also some tricks are implausible and some parts of the book are long-winded. But the plot is very good, the clues are well provided, and the solutions (yes, there are many solutions, and one of them will influence Carr for The Ends of Justice, 1927), are fantastic.
Not bad for a novel created for entertainment. 


  1. Horrified to admit this, but have never actually read this one ... shocking, I know!

  2. It's far from being a masterpiece but it's enjoyable and clever! You have to read it :)

  3. Thanks! I read The Trent's Lost Case many years ago and I remember that I really enjoyed it :)

  4. Great! Thank you for coming by, Marianna :)