When Sir James Molloy, editor-in-chief of the Record learns that American financier Sigsbee Manderson has been found shot dead in the grounds of his English country house, he immediately asks Philip Trent to investigate. Artist, freelance newspaperman, and amateur sleuth Trent feels that there are enough interesting aspects to the case and decides to go “have a look.” But what begins as a diversion for the dilettante detective becomes a deeply personal struggle in which Trent must decide between the continued happiness of someone he loves, or bringing a killer to justice.
I read Trent’s last case ages ago (as a teenager) and didn’t think much of it then. Now, half a century on, I decided to give this classic another try.
Everything I’ve read tells me that Bentley intended this book to be a parody of the mystery genre. He was tired of the detectives of the previous era. Detectives whose skill was based on logic, observation, and deduction, and whose personalities were often mechanical, analytic, and emotionally stunted. So, in reaction, he creates a detective with a humorous, lighthearted style. A detective who engages in cases not out of a sense of justice, or a need to exercise his mind with a seemingly unsolvable puzzle, but because he finds it an engaging lark. Yet, a detective who still has the skills of logic and observation that allows him to piece the evidence together—even if his deductions are ultimately proven very wrong. A very human and imperfect detective.
In fact, Bentley seems to have ended up creating many of the tropes that were to be used in the genre for years to come. We have the witty, affable gentleman detective who comes to the English country house to, good-naturedly match wits with his old friend, the Scotland Yard Inspector. The victim is someone who no one will really miss, including his beautiful, much younger wife who did not love him, his Oxford educated secretary, or his starchy butler who knows the difference between a gentleman and a policeman—and treats them accordingly.
And I was really enjoying this too. Watching the very personable Trent navigate the case was very entertaining. With the character you can draw a line to later detectives, such as Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion, and Roger Sheringham. But then Bentley decided have Trent to go where, at that time, no self-respecting detective would dare to go. He fell in love. And not just with anyone, but the victim’s wife—who is of course, a chief suspect. Again, done as a means of breaking the rules of the genre. And just about every later detective has their love interest. But here it just felt like it was trying to fit into the Victorian/Edwardian melodrama mold. It’s not even a great romance, and it also takes up way too much of the story. Almost the entire second half is Trent fighting his inner demons, determined to deprive himself of the woman he loves even if she may be an accomplice to the crime.
But then Bentley brings it back around with a pretty fantastic ending involving a double (or is it a triple?) plot twist. In the final pages, when Trent is feeling his most accomplished, the actual culprit reveals to him that while all of his deductions regarding the circumstances of the crime, and the actions of his prime suspect were, for the most part, accurate, he still got it totally wrong. One could almost see the dumbfounded look on his face.
So, with my new-found knowledge of the impact of this book on the genre as a whole, I’d say that it is definitely worth the read. But from a personal perspective, with a melodramatic plotline that bogged down the entire middle of the book, it still didn’t have any great appeal. In short, it was okay.
Vintage Mystery Extravaganza—2015 Bingo—Read one book made into a movie or TV show [Film adaptions 1920, 1929, and 1952]