Monday, 22 May 2000

E.C. Bentley: Trent's Last Case (1913)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1995
Review number: 507

Despite the title, Trent's Last Case was the first of Bentley's novels featuring Philip Trent, a detective conceived as a deliberate contrast to Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes is a collection of eccentricities, part of a line of fictional detectives whose mannerisms are more important than their characters; Hercule Poirot is another example. Trent was intended to be more realistic; a man with more or less normal tastes, who was even allowed to be fallible.

This particular edition touts the book as the beginning of the "Golden Age" of English crime writing, though I would myself feel that the phrase is so strongly associated with Agatha Christie that the true beginning must be The Mysterious Affair at Styles a few years later. Though Bentley's work is far superior in literary merit, and particularly on characterisation, it was Christie who really caught the public imagination. Bentley is still a pre-First World War writer, with attitudes and ideas which fit in with writers like G.K. Chesterton (a close friend, and dedicatee of Trent's Last Case) and John Buchan. The genteel, ordered, and, above all, just world of the crime novel which struck a chord with readers after that war was evoked more strongly by Christie because she was writing from a nostalgic point of view about a world that had effectively vanished, while Bentley was still living in it.

The plot of Trent's Last Case retains some of the elements of the Holmesian world: the victim is an American financier (conforming to the brutal and uncultured stereotype of the ruthless self-made man), and among the suspects lies a lurid world of labour secret societies, akin to several created by Conan Doyle. The other suspects are his secretaries, his wife and her uncle, and the servants. There are many strange facets to the case, the most obvious being the odd fact that which a man should be killed missing his false teeth yet carefully dressed.

Though the plot is ingenious, it takes second place to the characters, especially once Trent discovers himself strongly attracted to Mrs Manderson. It is because Philip Trent is an interesting man that the reader continues; the plot itself is rather unsatisfactory by later standards. There are other flaws as far as a modern reader is concerned, such as the casual anti-Semitism and the calm assumption that British culture is superior to all others.

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