Trent’s Last Case, by E. C. Bentley

First published in 1913, Trent’s Last Case dates from the earliest days of detective fiction, at the beginning of the Golden Age that featured Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, among others. Bentley, who was a friend of G. K. Chesterton, author of the Father Brown books, wrote this story to poke fun at the genre. As P. D. James says in her marvelous Talking about Detective Fiction, “Bentley disliked the conventional straitjacket of the orthodox detective story and had little respect for Sherlock Holmes.”

However, a funny thing happened once he started to write: a real story began to emerge and he couldn’t resist writing it. Most writers are familiar with this magic. You can outline all you want, but once you start writing, the story can take you places you never intended. And you’d better hope it does, because otherwise the story won’t ever come to life, in my opinion anyway.

There is much to like about this book. Philip Trent is a painter who has fallen into occasionally investigating stories for a newspaper. The paper asks Trent to investigate the death of American tycoon, Sigsbee Manderson, who was found shot outside the English country house where he and his wife, Mabel, spend their summers. Is it murder or suicide? At the house, Trent runs into his chum, Inspector Murch with whom he has a friendly rivalry as to who can first figure out the answer to their cases. They even have rules: “It was understood between them that Trent made no journalistic use of any point that could only have come to him from an official source. Each of them, moreover, for the honour and prestige of the institution he represented, openly reserved the right to withhold from the other any discovery or inspiration that might come to him which he considered vital to the solution of the difficulty.”

As James says, “Bentley is seen as an innovator, not a destroyer of the detective story.” Two of his innovations are that Trent doesn’t actually solve the case, but he does fall in love, and that romance becomes a major part of the story. This romance was one of the things that bothered me about the book. Trent falls in love with the widow, knowing full well that he shouldn’t get involved with a suspect in the case, and much of the story concerns his conflict over his feelings for Mabel and the possible consequences of his actions.

Bentley does a good job with both the romance and Trent’s internal conflict, treating them subtly but with convincing emotion. Chalk it up to a personal preference, but I’m not too fond of mixing genres. I’d rather keep the romance in romances. Sure, there are exceptions: I loved Sayers’s Gaudy Night and Margery Allingham’s Dancers in Mourning. I think those two books work because the characterisation is so strong, not just of Wimsey and Campion, but of all the characters.

The plotting here is terrific, with many twists and turns, and a satisfying conclusion. Less satisfying is the character of Trent. In the beginning of the book, he talks a lot of piffle, as though trying to sound like Bertie Wooster, but somehow is not as amusing. Then, once he starts on the case, he drops all that and becomes a normal, intelligent young man bent on solving the riddle. At the end, however, he returns to this banter that doesn’t quite work.

It’s hard to keep the tone of a book consistent from beginning to end. Some writers use the same tone for every book, while others try to vary the tone from book to book, coming up with ways to remind themselves as they go, such as associating a particular piece of music with the book. Writers of a series of books featuring the same detective have the difficult task of maintaining the tone throughout the series.

Maybe Bentley’s original satirical intentions kept him from keeping his tone consistent and from putting his imagination into his characters. It’s unfortunate because, with a little more work, this good book could have been great.

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