Trent’s Last Case by E. C. Bentley (1913)

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. 

Prior Judgments – Nick Fuller @ The Grandest Game in the World, Kate @ Cross Examining CrimeRich Westwood @ Past Offences

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza—2015 Bingo—Read one book made into a movie or TV show [Film adaptions 1920, 1929, and 1952]

8 thoughts on “Trent’s Last Case by E. C. Bentley (1913)

  1. I bought it because Christie was such a big fan, but it turned out to be a tortuous experience. The penultimate chapter and the joke at the end are good, but I found the journey getting their to be a hard slog. But I’m glad you found enjoyment the second time around.

  2. This was for me an early one when I started getting into older detective fiction, mainly on account of its reputation. I…didn’t see it. In fact, I read this and thought “Huh, well if that’s a classic then I’ll probably be okay not reading more…” and put the genre down for a while afterwards.

    Would I like it more now? Maybe. I’m too earnest a fan of the legitimate joy of the detective novel to get much pleasure from these sniffy, faintly condescending “parodies” — even to my early eye, Bentley missed the point of the detective stories that preceded him — and the ending is, well, fine, but I’d possibly have loved it more had I been more engaged in the journey.

    You make me curious to pick it up again, but equally my TBR ain’t going’ nowhere and doesn’t need more books I’ve already read adding to it. Maybe in another decade or so…

      1. God, I don’t even remember that — brave of me to attempt to reread it given the impression it left…! Maybe in a decade or two, eh?

    1. If Bentley hadn’t veered off into melodrama for the biggest portion of the book it probably wouldn’t have been so bad. Adding that love interest to his list of norms to break was just one straw too many.

  3. Jonathan O

    The main problem with TLC is that we can’t read it with the mind that would have read it when it first came out, any more than we can hear a Beethoven symphony with the ears of the early 18th century. When I read this for the first time recently I too was disappointed, but I could see why Dorothy L. Sayers thought so highly of it.

    1. So true. I can understand how readers at the time, or 20 years later, would see it differently. As with any work of GAD, it must be read in the context of the time it was written.

      That being said, I never enjoy a melodrama, and because too much of it bleeds into TLC, it will never be a winner with me.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.