Sunday, 21 April 2013

Penguin no. 78: Trent's Last Case
by E.C. Bentley

There are moments in life, as one might think, when that which is within us, busy about its secret affair, lets escape into consciousness some hint of a fortunate thing ordained. Who does not know what it is to feel at times a wave of unaccountable persuasion that it is about to go well with him? - not the feverish confidence of men in danger from a blow of fate, not the persistent illusion of the optimist, but an unsought conviction, springing up like a bird from the heather, that success is in hand in some great or little thing. The general suddenly knows at dawn that the day will bring him victory, the man on the green knows that he will suddenly put down the long putt. As Trent mounted the stairway outside the library door he seemed to rise into certainty of achievement.

Trent's Last Case is an Edwardian novel. It was first published one hundred years ago at a time when the short-story was the typical format of the detective story. My favourite moment comes when the Oxford graduate Marlowe finds that it is necessary to describe the form and purpose of a rear-view mirror, and then does so using oddly precise and formal language which is at odds with the ordinariness of the subject, at least for a modern reader. That there is a need to do this, and the way in which it is done, both emphasise just how long ago this book was written, and just how different the world was at the time. Such differences underpin the whole story, as the protagonist's actions are guided by a set of values which seem all but unrecognisable today, and which weight the preservation of someone else's reputation above all other considerations.

The co-authored Penguin I read last week, Trent's Own Case, was published more than twenty years after this one. I think the most striking difference between the two stories, at least initially, is in the personality of Philip Trent. In both stories Trent is a successful artist, one who actually manages to sell his paintings, but here he is also an occasional journalist. The man who arrives in Marlstone intent on investigating the murder of Sigsbee Manderson is young, untidy, and excitable, and fairly eccentric in his habits and in his way of speaking. He seems at first to have far more in common with Ellery Queen or Gervase Fen than with the more sober Philip Trent who investigates the murder of Randolph in the later book.

This younger Trent possesses the easy confidence of a man accustomed to succeeding; someone who is used to finding himself in possession of the right answer, and who thinks on excelling without effort as the natural order of things. This innate ability is illustrated by his start in journalism, when using nothing more than the published reports in the newspapers, and therefore with information equally available to everyone, he solves a case which had clearly baffled the police, identifying an overlooked witness as the culpable man. His crime-solving career has never looked back, and he has a reputation now as the man to be relied upon when there is a mystery to be unravelled. It is for this reason that he is welcomed into the home of the recently-deceased Manderson.

Yet despite his amateur status and his frequent successes, his relations with the police remain cordial; their rivalry is treated on both sides as a kind of sport, and mockingly codified with its own set of rules. It is as if they both recognise that their shared goal of having the crime solved is benefited by the competition, and that it is the solving of the mystery rather than any attaching glory which is really of prime importance. But nonetheless it is always clear that Trent has the advantage: he is a gentleman with an Oxford education and therefore imbued with a level of insight inevitably lacking in his rival. But in this story Trent is to become aware of his limitations, and while he is a content and satisfied man by the end of the book, his confidence in his exceptional abilities has been damped.

This is the story of Trent's maturing told as a story of detection: the victim is the American businessman Sigsbee Manderson, and as with Trent's Own Case he is a man no one feels inclined to mourn; even Trent is momentarily disinclined to investigate his murder. Manderson had lived a life in which the accumulation of wealth for its own sake was all that mattered. He had always been wealthy; by the end of his life he was even wealthier: first speculation had increased his wealth, then a period of conservatism had consolified it. He had been murdered during a holiday in England, shot through the eye on the grounds of his English estate, apparently after leaving his bedroom unobserved sometime during the night. One theory is that it was an aggrieved American trade unionist who had brought about his demise, but Trent is distracted by elements of his attire which don't quite fit the known facts.

I expect that most of the plaudits for this book reflect its influence, as the remote setting, the unpopular victim, and the gentleman sleuth are all integral elements of detective fiction in the following years. I enjoyed it more for this story of the gradual maturing of Trent. And because of the complex and shifting nature of the solution, although his cannot be explained further without giving the whole thing away.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 543: Trent's Own Case

And by his son, Nicolas Bentley:
Penguin no. 1548: Third Party Risk


  1. Trent's Last Case was one of two novels excoriated quite severely in Raymond Chandler's essay on the detective form, _The Simple Art of Murder_.

    1. I'll have to go back and read that essay again. My memory of it was of him barracking in a sense for his own conception of the detective story, and I wonder if the test he applied was fair. Realism is only one criteria, and I don't think it was what Bentley or the Golden Age authors aimed for. I think Trent's Last Case could also be read as a criticism of the genre, when you consider its confident but fallible hero.



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