Trent’s Last Case by E. C. Bentley: First Among Mysteries?

 

London, 1936.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was dead, leaving the President’s Chair of the Detection Club vacant.

Under deep mourning, the bereaved club members assembled to nominate a new president. Among those present were Fr. Ronald Knox, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and the late Mr. Chesterton’s friend of friends, Edmund Clerihew Bentley. The vote was taken. The motion was made. The new president-elect rose to be sworn into office by oath.

“Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”

“I do,” said E. C. Bentley, and assumed the presidential seat.

Though E. C. Bentley was a natural candidate for this position, he was something of an anomaly in that prestigious society of prolific mystery writers. Mr. Bentley had only written one mystery. But that one mystery, that single contribution to the genre of detective fiction, was hailed by Chesterton, Christie, and Sayers as, perhaps, the single best mystery story ever written. High praise indeed. Though Bentley’s first mystery, it featured the last mystery of his detective. And though President Bentley swore that he would defend the principle of detectives detecting crimes using the wits bestowed upon them by their creators, his own Trent’s Last Case could be seen as breaking that rule. For throughout the twists and turns of its scintillating plot, the impotence, instead of the omnipotence, of human reason is revealed.

Trent’s Last Case is such a marvelous mystery story precisely because it purposefully breaks from the beaten path of the marvelous mystery stories. Trent’s Last Case is the first case of its kind. In the words of E. C. Bentley from his autobiography, Those Days: “It should be possible, I thought, to write a detective story in which the detective was recognizable as a human being and was not quite so much the ‘heavy sleuth.’ …Why not show up the fallibility of the Holmesian method?”

Bentley’s Philip Trent is a fallible human being. Trent, like Chesterton’s Father Brown, is a departure from the mechanical, impersonal, eccentrics made famous by Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, Émile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes—detectives who sired a whole generation of “heavy sleuths” wielding logical powers based upon observation, deduction, and the art of detection. E. C. Bentley had a modernist sensibility that eschewed the classical forms and current fads of crime fiction. For him, Holmes and his class were too analytic and too idiosyncratic to connect with readers. As a response, and as a satire too, Bentley marched Philip Trent across the stage of detective fiction—a journalist gumshoe with “good spirits and a lively, humorous fancy,” and “an unconscious power of getting himself liked.” Trent is observant, but he is also a man of emotion. He is deductive, but he is also a gentleman of discernment. He is a detective, but he is also a creature of imperfection.

The details of Trent’s Last Case are too good to spoil. The shadows and shocks that spring from the murder of scheming, indomitable, bloodthirsty Wall Street financier Sigsbee Manderson are an operatic delight to experience. Found shot through the eye by an unknown hand, the businessman’s body bore signs of a struggle; but the thing that inflamed the wonder of newspaper reporter Philip Trent was the way the body was dressed. When Manderson rose before the house was stirring and mysteriously went out into the grounds to meet his demise, he appeared to have been in a great hurry: his cuffs were drawn up into his coat sleeves, his shoelaces were poorly tied, and his false teeth remained grinning in a dish in his room. But if he was so very pressed, why did he part his hair so carefully? Why did he put on so much? He had a complete set of underclothing, studs in his shirt, sock-suspenders, money and keys. One of his waistcoat pockets was lined with leather for the reception of his watch, but he had his watch in the pocket on the other side. In short, there were signs of great agitation and haste and signs of the exact opposite.

So it begins, and so it proceeds with a series of contradictions and conclusions like no other mystery before. All of the familiar characters are present, however—the bustling inspector, the suspicious secretary, the unfeeling widow, the stiff butler—all the usual suspects, but all playing unusual parts. Following a course informed by a balance of logic and imagination, Philip Trent fact-finds his way through a labyrinthine puzzle of ever-changing possibilities, is caught up in a complicated and compromising love affair, outlines a brilliant exposé, and receives a stultifying surprise on the final page that rivals the surprise of that ancient detective, Oedipus, leaving Philip Trent cured: “I will never touch a crime-mystery again.”

Trent’s Last Case is not a mystery story that exposes the mystery maker as much as it exposes the mystery story itself. The book is a romping and riveting and rhetorical parody leading to the Golden Age of detective literature. Trent is not the keen amateur who sidesteps and blindsides the dunderheaded professionals. He pursues criminals not out of a brooding sense of justice, but because he finds it an engaging lark. Trent is a man that has a brain in his head, but he also has a heart as big as his head. By turning the world of detective fiction upside down with Trent’s Last Case, E. C. Bentley was one of the first mystery authors to place an innovative importance on duping readers through a series of false conclusions and multiple solutions, rather than bedazzling them with gymnastics of reason that hit the truth with unerring precision.

“Between what matters and what seems to matter,” asks Trent’s Last Case with both gravitas and a wink, “how should the world we know judge wisely?” The question is well asked by this novel mystery novel because it does not present a case where the detective solves the mystery. Trent’s Last Case presents a case where the mystery solves the detective.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.
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