Trent’s Own Case (E.C. Bentley and H. Warner Allen)

By E.C. Bentley and H. Warner Allen

First published: UK, Constable, 1936; USA, Alfred A. Knopf, 1936

One always approaches the sequel to a masterpiece, one of the detective story landmarks, with some trepidation. Will it be up to the level of the first (last) case? Or will a quarter of a century have sapped the author of his invention and Philip Trent of his charm?

One’s anxieties are somewhat justified, for this is not up to the standard of the first – it is much better than average, very well-written and amusing, but hardly a masterpiece. Trent, who was a breath of fresh air in the early Edwardian era of flamboyant hawkeyes and melodramatic conspiracies, is agreeable but barely distinguishable from any of his numerous literary progeny – say Lord Peter Wimsey or Roger Sheringham. Although this is his “own” case, he was much more emotionally involved with his Last Case, when he fell in love with the chief suspect, whom he subsequently married.

Here his involvement in the murder of James Randolph, the highly unpleasant and sadistic Nonconformist millionaire (as disagreeable as Sigsbee Manderson), is coincidental rather than natural: he visited Randolph on the night of the murder to clear up a matter involving the actress Eunice Faviell (who didn’t know then that she was Randolph’s niece until she lunched with him earlier that day), was the friend of the main suspect (employed by Randolph at one of his institutes until his unaccountable dismissal and in love with Eunice) and of Randolph’s secretary, and was unsuccessfully framed by the murderer. Coincidence seems to be one of the recurring motifs: Trent accidentally causes Randolph to discover the murderer’s secret, causing the murderer to commit his crime; his visit to Randolph leads to Fairman’s self-incrimination and attempted suicide; and Trent’s aunt Miss Yates, who asked him to confront Randolph about Eunice, picks up the page from Randolph’s engagement-book dropped by Fairman on the boat to Dieppe and sends it to her nephew.

While the book is thus as coincidental as Dickens at his most convoluted, it is also rather diffuse. The middle sections are concerned with a visit to France which, while pleasant reading, contributes nothing to the book and must, therefore, be judged a self-indulgence. Things tighten up towards the end, when Trent gets down to the serious business of interviewing the most obvious people (most of whom have been inaccessible – Raught, Randolph’s valet, and Eunice have hidden themselves and Fairman is in prison) and discovering what they saw and did.

The solution is hardly a surprise; indeed, it is the one the intelligent reader will have anticipated from Chapter V. The clues, though, that Bentley uses are the classical Chestertonian ones of character and conversation (meaningless lies and contradictions) – always the most satisfying sort. The murderer’s alibi, which hinges on a disguise inspired by the Charles Hawtrey play A Message from Mars, is the sort of simple ingenuity which one finds in “The Queer Feet”.

Despite its coincidences and self-indulgence, this is generally a very pleasing detective story which suffers only by comparison with its great predecessor, one of the three best detective novels written before 1920. Had it come from another writer, it would be more favourably received. As it is, one can only regret that Trent’s second full-length case was also his last.

Blurb (UK)

Trent has disappeared for more than twenty years: but the memory of him is still preserved by the hundreds of thousands who followed him in his “Last Case”.  Of that classic among detective novels, Mr. Chesterton has declared that he could point to “dozens of famous writers and thinkers, dons and doctors and diplomatists and poets of the most classical turn, who had put this on their secret shelf of Best Books.”

A new, but celebrated figure, Mr. Warner Allen, assists Mr. Bentley in describing Trent’s return.  One of the reasons for this collaboration will be apparent to all readers who know Mr. Allen’s writings about wine.

Trent’s Last Case was a great book, to which Trent’s Own Case proves a worthy successor.

Blurb (US)

This is the first murder-mystery written by Mr. Bentley since his Trent’s Last Case, which has become world famous during the past twenty-three years and is still regarded by critics as one of the modern masterpieces of detective fiction.  It is enough to say that this new one is worthy of the old.  The reader will find in it a fascinating and swiftly moving story of the murder of a wealthy philanthropist, a murder in which Trent himself is involved, and which he solves with incomparable brilliance.  Moreover, the reader will find here not only the drama and terror of a first-rate murder-mystery, but also comedy, wisdom, and a whole gallery of interesting characters.

Dorothy L. Sayers says of this book: “I won’t waste time by saying that the plot is sound and the detection satisfying.  Trent has not altered a scrap and reappears with all his old humour and charm.  Trent is the only modern detective of fiction I really ever want to meet (except possibly Father Brown).”

Frank Swinnerton: “Vintage Trent.  The mystery is absorbing, and the narrative so full of charm that as soon as I had finished the book I turned back to the first page and began to read it through all over again, with greater pleasure than ever.”

Freeman Wills Crofts: “A fine mystery, most admirably worked out and left all shipshape and without loose ends.  It goes without saying that it is also a piece of literature, as would necessarily be the case with anything the author turned out.”

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (John Davy Hayward, 16 May 1936): Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since Philip Trent confessed to old Mr. Cupples that after the Sigsbee Manderson affair he would “never touch a crime-mystery again”.  Much blood has flowed since then, many shots fired and mysteries solved in which Trent has had no hand.  It is something of a shock, therefore, to find that he has staged a comeback.  Not that his return is unwelcome.  But it is inevitable that his handling of what his biographer, now assisted by that eminent oinophile Mr. Warner Allen, calls his “own case” should invite comparison with his masterly conduct in the Manderson affair—a case that has long and justly been acknowledged as a locus classicus in criminal investigation.

The tale unfolded by Mr. Bentley and his collaborator is exceedingly elaborate, and this, combined with the fact that Trent is no longer as young as he was in 1913, is one reason why it seems diffuse, even long-winded, in comparison with the Manderson affair.  Trent found himself involved in the death of James Randolph, a Congregationalist millionaire, on several counts.  He had been negotiating with the deceased for the painting of a portrait; he was concerned with Randolph’s relations with a young actress of his acquaintance and had, in fact, visited him at his flat shortly before he was shot through the heart; his aunt Julia picked up an incriminating page of a tear-off calendar recording Randolph’s appointments during the last hours of his life; and finally a close friend, employed by Randolph in one of his charitable enterprises, attempted to commit suicide after “confessing” to his employer’s murder.  The complications of the plot are increased by an army of subsidiary characters introduced to keep it moving.

That all of them are indispensable to the story is perhaps questionable.  But it is certain that some of them are far too fond of the sound of their own voices.  Even Trent is a trifle verbose; and one may sympathise with Inspector Bligh’s bluff aside that there are “chaps who could talk the hind-leg off a donkey”.  The lengthy discursions on wine and corkage, the disquisitions on French cafés and cooking, the obiter dicta on such things as a Provençal version of the Odyssey (with quotations) and “Staviskyisme” in French politics—in all of which we suspect the learned hand of Mr. Warner Allen—will strike many readers as out of place, for all that they conform to what may be called the Sayers standard of recondite knowledge.  They belong to a tradition of detective fiction in which Philip Trent is not wholly at his ease.  He has returned from his long vacation and there will be many to welcome him.  But the intervening years have taken something away—something similar to what Holmes sacrificed at the Reichenbach Falls.

New Statesman and Nation (Ralph Partridge, 23 May 1936): For over twenty years Mr. E.C. Bentley’s fame, like that of the late Professor Housman, endured on the strength of a single book.  When anyone proposes the invidious task of selecting the best half-dozen detective stories ever written, Trent’s Last Case is, in my experience, the only work which finds a place by common consent.  Could there be a greater tribute in this Elizabethan age of Christie, Sayers, Queen and Van Dine!  Now our Emeritus Professor of Detection has condescended to resume his labours with Trent’s Own Case, written in collaboration with Mr. H. Warner Allen.  Judged by the standard of his own masterpiece, Mr. Bentley’s new book was almost bound to disappoint—just as disillusion was in store for those who hoped that the Abyssinian war would end in another miraculous Adowa.  Does that postman ever knock twice?  In both cases modern weapons seem responsible for the deception of our hopes.  A considerable advance in detective technique has been achieved since Trent’s Last Case was written.  Red herrings, for instance, are no longer encouraged to rush off wildly at a tangent to the crime, but should be served à la Christie, that is, rounded off like whiting, with their tails neatly re-entering the plot at their point of departure.  In Trent’s Own Case Trent sets off in pursuit of a regular school of red herring, who take him on errands far from the crime to lands flowing with wines (provided by Mr. Warner Allen?) and literary quotations—mais ce n’est pas la guerre.  Villains, too, had better be muffled up in something less conspicuous than the cami-knickers of blatant innocence if they are to elude the lewd scrutiny of the modern reader.  Mr. Bentley’s villain will be lucky indeed if we resemble Trent in averting our eyes bashfully from such underwear.  But apart from his use of old-fashioned devices more modern writers can claim no superiority over Mr. Bentley.  The greatest advantage of the per-war author’s equipment was its lightness, an elegant vivacity of style—never to be confused with the ponderous heartiness of the Hemingway brigade.  This birthright Mr. Bentley, like Mr. A.E.W. Mason, apparently cannot lose.  He kept me enthralled and delighted by the careless grace with which he jumped across a difficult patch or swerved round an awkward corner in his narrative.  Trent’s animal spirits issue a challenge to all the modern detectives which none of them can meet, now that Peter Wimsey has made an honest woman of his Harriet.  Compared with Mr. Day Lewis, for example, Mr. Bentley may demand less, but he gives so much more.  Trent’s Own Case, ex hypothesi, cannot be his last, so let us hope for many more.

Books (Will Cuppy, 13 September 1936): This is a drop-everything-and-read item.  It’s Mr. Bentley’s first mystery since Trent’s Last Case of some twenty years aagone, which figures in detective history as one of the best and which was reprinted not so long ago in Mr. Knopf’s 3 Star Omnibus, along with Raoul Whitfield’s Green Ice and J.S. Fletcher’s The Middle Temple Murder.  (Lay in a copy of 3 Star Omnibus, too, if you’re not up on Bentley, though there’s no connection between Trent’s Last Case and Trent’s Own Case.)  These are stirring times, and one of the leading questions of the day is who shot James Randolph, British philanthropist, at his town house in Newbury Place (near Bullington Street)—anyway, it seems that important, such is Mr. Bentley’s charm as a baffler, not to mention Mr. H. Warner Allen, his collaborator, mentioned on the jacket in all but invisible print.

Mr. Bentley’s virtues as a mystery monger are many and various.  As Miss Dorothy Sayers remarks of the tome, “I won’t waste time saying that the plot is sound and the detection satisfying.”  In our opinion, his chief merit is his extremely comforting style, yet his jigsawing is no less grand.  As for leading queries posed, the reader will be hell-bent to find out what part was played in the crime by young Dr. Bryan Fairman, who dropped the small parcels overboard on the Dieppe boat, what threats the corpse had made against Eunice Faviell (actress), where the missing son is (also the will), and how to fit in the champagne cork (Felix Poutelle 1884), but there are a dozen others equally urgent, such as the fate of the Tiara of Megabyzus.

Philip Trent, of course, is one of the most attractive sleuths of all time.  Miss Sayers says he’s the only modern detective of fiction she’d care to meet, except possibly Father Brown.  And Mr. Frank Swinnerton swears that as soon as he had finished the book he turned back to the first page and read it all over again.  Really, there’s good reason for all the hullabaloo.

New York Times (Kay Irvin, 13 September 1936): For more than twenty years the mystery-loving public has been waiting for another story by the author of Trent’s Last Case.  Having achieved a mystery novel which was famous wherever such novels were read, and which was invariably to be found on even the shortest lists of the world’s greatest detective stories, E.C. Bentley retired into silence.  Now that he has broken his silence—even in collaboration with another writer—that fact is news.

As further news, be it recorded that Trent’s Own Case is a good story, but not so good a story as its historic predecessor.  It begins brilliantly, and it is by no means lacking either in ingenuity or in charm.  It holds its own in comparison with many popular thrillers.  But the readers who are looking for another masterpiece are doomed to disappointment on that score.

The plot is concerned with the murder of the millionaire James Randolph, famous for his philanthropies, but not universally loved in his private life.  Trent, having forsworn any return to crime investigation, is drawn into this case when one of his friends is arrested, and he knows that he may be suspected himself.  The puzzling threads lead back and forth across the channel, and into several false trails.  H. Warner Allen, Mr. Bentley’s collaborator, is a wine expert, and his special knowledge has contributed a clever clue in the unravelling of the mystery.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 22nd May 1936, 500w): That in recent years the claim of the detective novel to take its place in the great tradition of English literature has been more generally allowed is due largely to the impetus and the example given by Mr. E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, published more than twenty years ago…  Now, after the lapse of so many years, Mr. Bentley…gives us, with the aid of a collaborator, a new ‘Trent’.  Truth to say, there is not much more than ordinary merit in the plot…  But this book offers to the reader the rarest and the chiefest pleasure literature can give—a sense of close communion for an hour or two with a rich and cultivated mind.

Sat R (23rd May 1936, 140w): A more than worthy successor to Trent’s Last Case.

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 29th May 1936, 230w): The erudition of these collaborators is so wide and effortless that it makes even Mr. Van Dine look like a small-town university professor.  Trent’s Own Case is perhaps not quite so well knit and perfectly rounded as its predecessor.  But it has as ingenious a plot, two really wicked characters, the same leisurely Edwardian wit, the same bouquet.