Trent’s Last Case (E.C. Bentley)

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Bentley - Trent's Last Case.jpg

One of the earliest examples of the ‘true’ detective novel, which, although written in 1912, feels as modern as any of its successors, the works of Christie, Sayers and Berkeley.  The detection is handled with a lightness and a firmness of touch that would not be seen again until the masterworks of Sayers; indeed, Philip Trent, the amateur sleuth (artist and journalist) sent down by his paper to investigate the murder of the brutal financier Sigsbee Manderson, is clearly the inspiration for Wimsey, with his facetiousness that never descends into fatuousness (except in the euphoria of engagement) and keen intelligence.  The plot structure obviously anticipates Berkeley’s Poisoned Chocolates Case: the multiple solutions all contribute to the truth, taking the detective further but never quite far enough.  This slow grasping after the truth, always tantalisingly 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.

They say…

Agatha Christie: “one of the three best detective stories ever written.”

Dorothy L. Sayers: “It is the one detective story of the present century which I am certain will go down to posterity as a classic.  It is a masterpiece.”

R. Austin Freeman: “the literary workmanship is of a quality that must satisfy the most fastidious reader.”

Freeman Wills Crofts: “I have read the book three times with an increased interest each time; one of the very best detective stories extant.”

G.D.H. and M.I. Cole: “The best detective story we have ever read.”

Ronald Knox: “I suppose somebody might write another story as good as Trent’s Last Case, but I have been waiting nearly twenty years for it to happen.”

J.J. Connington: “Mr. Bentley’s record is, so far as I know, without a parallel…  a detective story which appeals to women as well as to men.  It does not date: it might have been written yesterday.”

Edgar Wallace: “Trent’s Last Case is a masterpiece of detective fiction.”

J.S. Fletcher: “the very best and cleverest detective story I have ever read.”

Dean Inge: “the best detective story I ever read”

Frank Swinnerton: “the finest long detective story ever written”

Dr. Alington: “impossible to imagine a better detective story”

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Dr. Arthur Shadwell, 20 February 1913): So far as we know, Trent’s Last Case, by E.C. Bentley, is also his first, which is a pity.  We should like some more of the same brand.  There are few, if any, better detective stories, and all readers who enjoy them will enjoy this.  It includes all the right ingredients.  As this kind of fiction has grown in popularity and quantity it has taken on refinements of quality.  Once it sufficed to start with a mysterious crime and track down the author by a more or less ingenious process of following up clues of one sort or another.  Then the several factors were gradually elaborated.  The mystery was deepened, the cunning of the criminal and the penetration of his pursuer were heightened, the clues made more subtle and the process of following them up more varied.  A further touch was added by working up false clues and bringing suspicion on the innocent.  It is a subtle art to lead the reader astray and expose the real criminal in the least expected quarter at the end after chapters of alternate doubt and certainty but always of suspense.  To make the thing complete, a love interest should be skilfully interwoven.

Mr. Bentley has all these elements, and he handles them in a masterly fashion.  We start with the murder of Sigsbee Manderson, the American world financier, at his country house in England.  Trent, who is artist, journalist, and amateur detective of international fame, goes down to investigate the crime at the request of a friend who is a newspaper magnate.  He finds the widow, an exquisite and gifted woman, her uncle, who happens to be an old friend of his own, and Manderson’s two secretaries.  These with an intelligent police inspector are the two principals; and they are all distinct, real, and interesting people.  We are not going to give the game away, but may say that it was Trent’s last case because he missed the truth, and missed it twice over.  Yet up to a point he was right.  Combining the observation of Sherlock Holmes with the reasoning of Joseph Rouletabille, he hits on the right scent and follows it up with unerring sagacity and marvellous adroitness, making use of the most modern police methods.  He proves his case up to the hilt and it is true, but not the whole truth.  The supreme subtlety in the art of false clues is surely this, that they are not false.  The truth, when he learns it at the end, so knocks him over that he resolves to make the case his last.  The reader, versed in these little intricacies, is led to suspect something of the truth at a comparatively early stage, but it is so cleverly overlaid that he forgets it again.  We hope that Trent will relate some of his earlier cases.

Ath (22nd February 1913, 5w): An excellently written detective story.

Spectator (8th March 1913, 850w): Mr. Bentley, whose name is unfamiliar to us in connexion with fiction though there is nothing of the novice in his style of writing, is to be congratulated on a decided success.

Boston Transcript (2nd April 1913, 220w): As a whole the story is ingenious, but it might be more skilfully constructed, and it possesses many, many pages during whose reading the reader’s attention continually lags.

Nation (10th April 1913, 170w): It is one of the very few good detective stories published in several years.  It has its technical faults.

Bookm (May 1913, 300w): Although he just fails of making Philip Trent a personality, Mr. Bentley has constructed a detective story of unusual originality and ingenuity.