#18: E.C. Bentley – ‘Trent’s Last Case’

In at number #18 is E.C. Bentley’s comic masterpiece Trent’s Last Case (1913). Once described by Agatha Christie as ‘one of the three best detective stories ever written’, E.C Bentley’s classic ‘whodunit’ is often heralded as the prototypical ‘Golden Age’ detective novel. Featuring an urbane, genius detective and located within the typically closed, almost claustrophobic domestic environment, Bentley’s novel very much anticipates and heavily influences the later and more fully realized works of classic golden age writers such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers.

The central mystery of the text concerns the bizarre murder of entrepreneur Sigsbee Manderson, whose body is discovered on the grounds of his country house estate with a single bullet wound through the eye. No murder weapon is found, however the body does exhibit signs of a struggle, with scratches and bruises around the wrists. There are also seemingly inexplicable clues; Manderson’s pocket watch is discovered in the wrong pocket, his false teeth are missing and he is oddly dressed in a combination of day and evening clothes. This is of course a shocking sartorial irregularity according to Manderson’s servants, who all testify to him being such a neat and discerning dresser.

With the police unable to distinguish any clear suspects or discernible motive for the attack, charismatic artist and amateur detective Phillip Trent is summoned to intervene. Bentley immediately establishes Trent as a comparable figure to archetypal armchair sleuths such as Sherlock Holmes, able to solve the most impenetrable mysteries through a reliance on his superior powers of deductive logic and bizarre expertise in obscure fields of knowledge such as ‘good shoe leather’. Despite these superficial displays of genius, Trent is ultimately a comic figure, one who bumbles through the case misinterpreting clues and implicating the wrong suspects. A desperate romantic, he also makes the mistake of falling in love with a prime suspect – the dead millionaire’s widow, Mabel.

In many way’s Trent’s Last Case is more interesting for the ways it subverts the expectations and conventions of the detective format than for the ways it conforms to them. Not only is amateur sleuth Phillip Trent unable to successfully solve the central mystery, but the novel pushes the parameters of ‘fair play’ to such an extent that it is similarly impossible for the reader. Notions of logic and reason are replaced by chance and coincidence, whilst seemingly concrete clues become unstable and open to interpretation. Trent’s Last Case is  a witty and thoroughly enjoyable novel that has a complex and surprising denouement, one that deliberately defies logic and reason. The unforeseeable solution to the mystery ultimately leads Trent to bemoan the ‘impotence of human reason’ and vow ‘never to touch a crime mystery again’.

Despite such pronouncements, luckily Trent does return in both Trent’s Own Case (1936) and Trent Intervenes (1938) – the latter a collection of short stories. Featuring a number of satisfying mysteries that provide a welcome comeback for the charismatic and charming detective, these later stories nonetheless fail to replicate the ingenuity and originality of Bentley’s first Trent mystery. Over a century after its initial publication, Trent’s Last Case still remains a humorous, sophisticated and gripping masterpiece of detective fiction, with Trent himself still one of our most compelling, charming and multifaceted detectives. A must read for fans of ‘Golden-Age’ or ‘Country House’ detective fiction.

 

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