This year I’m reading my way through the mystery section, A-Z. Read along, won’t you?
I’ve just had the best time reading E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, a beguiling whodunit that prefigured crime’s Golden Age. It is 1913, and detectives are very much dominated by Sherlock Holmes and his countless imitators, such long forgotten ratiocinators as Sexton Blake, Duckworth Drewe, Romney Pringle and Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, aka the Thinking Machine.
Philip Trent is introduced to us as yet another instance of the World’s Greatest Detective, celebrated for his keen artist’s eye for clues, embarking on his umpteenth adventure to discover how American magnate Sigsby Manderson, a thoroughly dislikeable millionaire with many potential assassins, wound up shot through the eye, dressed to the nines but for the omission of his false teeth. Trent’s reputation is prodigious; the police know him and are resigned to doggedly digging for clues while he runs mental rings around them. Even the sexy French chambermaid recognizes him at a distance. A journalist, amateur sleuth and gentleman of independent means, Trent is perhaps remarkable for his urbane wit (and for noticing the French chambermaid right back), but otherwise seems to be one more latter day Holmes off the rack.
But the plot grows curiouser and curiouser, and predictable stratagems collapse under their own ponderous weight, while – can it be? Is our famous sleuth becoming infatuated with the prime suspect? Could such a brilliant mind be subjugated to the errant demands of a wayward heart? Could it possibly be that the world’s greatest sleuth is… human? Oh yes indeed. And just possibly fallible as well.
A human detective may not seem as startling today as in 1913, but the book remains a rare pleasure today owing to its disarming construction (this is a “fair play” mystery where the reader not only gets to match wits with Trent, but even possibly outsleuth him), and to the erudite, large-hearted charm of Bentley’s stylish, gently satiric prose. Bentley earned his crust as an editorialist for the papers, and has the gift of writing sentences to linger over.
Like The Man Who Was Thursday, written by Bentley’s old schoolmate and good friend G.K. Chesterton, Trent’s Last Case is a true original, for which no sequel was ever intended. There is one, and some other books written many years later; they aren’t very good. A one book writer, but what a book! The other singularity for which Bentley is known is the Clerihew, the quirky poetic form that bears his (middle) name. Here are a few of my favorites:
What I like about Clive
Is that he is no longer alive.
There is a great deal to be said
For being dead.
Although the dialogues of Plato
Do not actually mention the potato,
They inculcate strongly we should
Seek the Absolute Ideal Good.
Mr. H.G. Wells
Was composed of cells.
He thought the human race
Was a perfect disgrace.