Trent’s Last Case, E.C. Bentley’s 1913 detective story, is a landmark in the genre.
Agatha Christie thought it one of the three best detective stories of all time. Dorothy L. Sayers called it “the one detective story of the present century which I am certain will go down to posterity as a classic”. G.K. Chesterton (to whom Bentley dedicated the work) thought it “the finest detective story of modern times”.
H. Douglas Thomson (Masters of Mystery, 1931) saw it as the first modern detective story, an urbane and naturalistic work that avoids melodrama, and where the characters are human beings, whose motivations are the wellsprings of the plot.
For all that, Bentley’s historical importance is overstated. The work appeared in 1913, three years after A.E.W. Mason wrote the character-driven At the Villa Rose. Although Bentley (Those Days, 1940) states that the book was written as a retort to “the extreme seriousness of Holmes and the extreme seriousness of his imitators”, Chesterton had already written humorous detective stories in The Club of Queer Trades (1905) and the early Father Brown stories.
The work nevertheless deserves its classic status. Although written in 1912, it is witty and ingenious, and feels as modern as many of its successors, the works of Christie, Sayers, or Anthony Berkeley. The detection is handled with a lightness and a firmness of touch that Sayers would emulate.
Philip Trent, artist and journalist, is the first gentleman amateur sleuth, and not a Great Detective in the line of Holmes. He is is clearly the inspiration for Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, with his keen intelligence and facetiousness that never descends into fatuousness (except in the euphoria of engagement).
Bentley intended Trent as a reaction against “the exaggerated unreality of the character of Holmes”; thus, he is not a “character”, but “a human being with human weaknesses”. One of those human weaknesses is love.
Sherlock Holmes is an asexual; “all emotions … were abhorrent to his cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind” (“A Scandal in Bohemia”). Most detectives in his wake were equally immune to feminine charms; the Old Man in the Corner, Max Carrados, Dr. Thorndyke, and Father Brown were all bachelors.
Trent falls in love with the victim’s widow, and marries her. He sets an example for many of the detectives of the 1930s – Lord Peter, who spends four novels courting Harriet Vane; Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion; Nicholas Blake’s Nigel Strangeways; Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn; and Michael Innes’ John Appleby.
Trent’s Last Case is also one of the most famous (but not the first) attempts to deconstruct the genre. Bentley called it “not so much a detective story as an exposure of detective stories”, a logical parody in which the amateur sleuth Philip Trent’s brilliant solution is completely wrong, and the truth is only revealed when the murderer helpfully confesses. “Why not,” Bentley asked, “show up the infallibility of the Holmesian method?”
The plot structure obviously anticipates Berkeley’s Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929); the multiple solutions all contribute to the truth, taking the detective further but never quite far enough. This slow grasping after the truth, always tantalizingly near yet out of reach, sets up the book’s moral: even when one knows four-fifths of the truth, one can never be certain.
The multiple solution can be dazzlingly effective; either it can be used for misdirection (an apparently convincing case based on evidence but misinterpreting or overlooking important information), as in John Dickson Carr; or the writer can devise a series of solutions, true but not the whole truth, as in Ellery Queen.
The idea of the mistaken detective will, however, have a detrimental effect on the detective story. Later writers use the idea to question reason and the very concept of knowledge and truth. Julian Symons, writing after WWII, alleged that truth is an illusion, and that the universe is fundamentally meaninglessness. The detective story plunges into Absurdism and nihilism.