Published in 1913, Edmund Clerihew Bentley’s first detective novel, Trent’s Last Case, is sometimes cited as an early beginning for the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, the inter-war (with change) period when clues, twists, and the intellectual challenge were at the height of their popularity in crime fiction. So what better book to kick off the blog?
The titular Last Case concerns the shooting of Sigsbee Manderson, the Napoleon of Finance. His body is found just next to his shed, with a bullet wound through his skull. Maybe it’s suicide – but if so, where is the weapon? Why are his clothes disordered, while his hair is neat? And why did he leave behind his false teeth?
Reading this now, after reading many books inspired by it, is an odd experience. I had to remind myself that this is not just one of many books featuring the intuitive amateur detective archetype, but perhaps the first of all of them – because the pattern set here is so prominent in later books, I kept getting deja vu.
The character of Philip Trent as presented here is of an artist, an amiable, attractive young man with quick intuition, who works as a freelance newspaper reporter whenever there’s a case that needs investigating.
Trent arrives at the scene, and he uncovers plenty of clues and motives. He begins to formulate a theory – and fall for one of the suspects. So far, very much the template for many detective stories to come. But this book wasn’t written following the standard genre templates, and after Trent reveals his theory, things begin to depart from what we’d expect from a classic detective story.
I’ll reveal no more, but the book has a few surprises up its sleeve that the writers of the Golden Age surely found inspirational. The book was supposedly written as a kind of send-up of traditional detective figures, and that playful attitude towards the expected tropes becomes so characteristic of the Golden Age. The concept of “Fair Play” isn’t really present here – I don’t think the reader is meant to guess the solution, since most of the true story is delivered as a narrative from the characters involved. It’s interesting to see the approach to clue-presenting. The Knox’s Decalogue rule (written much later, obviously) states:
“The detective must not light on any clues are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.”
Bentley, on the other hand, describes what actions Trent performs, and what he looks at. But only in his explanation are we told what Trent actually saw. For example, Trent closely examines a pair of shoes. We’re not told that the seams appear loose until later on. This is in the classic Sherlock Holmes style; it makes the detective look very clever, but pulls back from giving the reader equal information.
Putting aside the question of reader fair-play, the book does follow the spirit of game-playing that is found in some Golden Age books. Trent directly alludes to it when talking with Inspector Murch, his friendly rival on the police force. And until he becomes emotionally involed, Trent does treat detection as a game. But later in the book, the game is between Bentley and the reader, as trick after trick is played with their expectations. Multiple solutions are posited for the crime, which is another idea that Golden Age books would pick up and run with. It culminates in a discussion of real-life murder cases, another obsession of Golden Age writers.
Writing-wise the book shows its age – modern readers would probably find the prose a bit flowery, though it’s perfectly readable. At this stage there hasn’t been much development in how to actually deliver the crucial plot information to the reader, so early chapters are a bit of an info-dump. Trent’s early summation picks things up, though, as clues are actually explained, and a dramatic confrontation is had. But since this is a pre-genre-restrictions book, it sort of… isn’t a mystery book for a while. Readers, I skipped a whole chapter. By the time the plot and character beats started up again I was yelling at the characters to get on with it already! But once they do, it’s a much more exciting experience all the way to the end, with plenty of plotting, counter-plotting, and twists.
All in all, after a real stuggle to get going, I enjoyed this read. It won’t quite be what you’re used to, in structure and content, if you’re a fan of Golden Age detective fiction, but it will still be eerily familiar. The twists, some of which would go on to become staples of detective fiction, some of which wouldn’t, are very entertaining. The freedom that can only be found in a book written before the genre had fully developed is very noticeable here, which is a mixed blessing. If you’re not a fan of Golden Age detection already, then maybe don’t bother, but if you are, then this is well worth a look. It’s available on Project Gutenburg if you want to take a shot at it.
Other books I’ve read which I realised were heavily inspired by this book:
Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body
I mean, Wimsey kind of is Trent, in a lot of ways. Also note the relationship with the policeman, the fiddling about with bodies, and the victim being a prominent businessman.
Nicholas Blake, Thou Shell of Death
Noting all the similarities would be a spoiler, but I’ll just say that they are noted.
Ronald Knox, The Three Taps
Knox cranks up the satire here, but the game-playing tone of Trent’s Last Case is clearly visible.
Other reviews of this book: