Trent Intervenes (1938) – E. C. Bentley

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After Trent’s Last Case, E.C. Bentley might have been expected to kick off a series in order to capitalize on its success. But in fact he doesn’t seem to have been that interested; the follow-up came several decades later and was a collaboration with another writer. While he wrote short stories featuring the character, they are few and far between. Most of them were collected in the 1938 collection Trent Intervenes, with one extra that would be added to later editions.

Three stories, The Inoffensive Captain, The Clever Cockatoo, and The Ordinary Hairpins, were produced in the years following Trent’s Last Case. But then the character was put aside. The short stories only resumed after the publication of Trent’s Own Case in 1936 – the same year that he took on presidency of the Detection Club. Perhaps his new role inspired him to get back in the sleuthing saddle.
The stories are entertaining, with witty, light-hearted writing, and some inventive, well-worked-out tricks and clues; usually one or two per story. Although there is clueing present, don’t expect fair-play; Trent often does extra investigation off-screen. The focus, for the most part, is on clever criminal (or even non-criminal!) schemes; only a few of the stories contain murders. Perhaps because of the lighter nature of most of the crimes, the stories are not as interested in “achieving justice” as other Golden Age stories. Some culprits escape justice, others are let off by Trent; all that matters is that the scheme is explained. Often, as well as explaining the events in the story, there is a tendency to dump exposition about the criminal’s background; if that hasn’t been discussed earlier in the story it can end up being delivered in a lump at the end, which feels a bit awkward.

Despite the original intent of Trent’s Last Case being to humanize the role of the detective, Trent does not come off as particularly distinctive in this set of stories, only standing out when his profession as an artist becomes relevant. Many of the other characters that appear are much more colourful and intriguing; but unfortunately foreign characters are badly served by the writing and are caricatures at best. For anyone wondering if the stories’ later date means we get to see Trent in the situation he’s in after the Last Case, all the stories are prequels, which is a bit of a shame as I’d have liked some stories to take place later.
Some of the scene-setting can be rather atmospheric, though it doesn’t stand out. A lot of the stories see Trent in foreign climes; even within the UK, Trent travels widely. In tone, I’d say they fall into what Mike Grost calls the “Realist School”, with tricks involving mechanical devices and the “breakdown of identity”. In this respect, I’m reminded of the short stories of Dorothy L. Sayers, who regarded Trent’s Last Case very highly. I do think that Sayers supasses her inspiration here; this collection is good, but doesn’t reach any heights of brilliance.

If you only read one story…

…read The Genuine Tabard.

Here’s my summaries of the stories individually:

The Genuine Tabard:

When a dinner acquaintance’s new antique tabard proves to be suspect, Trent uncovers a cunning plot.
A fun and clever start here, with some witty writing. Features that Golden Age standby, the Gauche Rich American, but it’s not too overdone. The criminal scheme here is a clever one – simultaneously ridiculous yet amusingly plausible. You might be able to guess what was going on as it happened, but I enjoyed the process of having it explained to me. The key clue is of the “trivia question” variety, and here the criminal’s slip-up is unbelievably obscure. Having delivered this punchline, the story promptly ends. The introduction to the more recent edition calls it the standout story, and I agree.

A tabard like the one in the story. In case you were wondering what one looks like.

The Sweet Shot:

Trent arrives at a golf course where an unpopular man recently met his death, by some unknown means. The coroner’s verdict is that he was probably struck by lightning, but Trent finds a few unusual signs that give hints as to how a man could be killed while alone on a golf course.
One of those oddly common crossovers between the golf-themed mystery and the impossible crime. This one’s more fair-play, although the exact how might be difficult to figure out, the who is well clued, albeit obvious through lack of options. The solution is clever but technical.

The Clever Cockatoo:

An old friend asks Trent to find out why her sister shows symptoms of being drugged every dinnertime. A very loose kind of impossible poisoning story, but not really a fair one, though the solution is fairly ingenious. The method that Trent uses to “cure” the poisoning is quite good as well. Trent also follows in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes in his method of determining the effects of an unknown drug.
I wonder if the story was inspired by an antipathy to cockatoos. I can just imagine Bentley saying, “Cockatoos are such brutes. Now wouldn’t it be funny if I wrote a story where a cockatoo was useful for once?”

The Vanishing Lawyer:

Respected lawyer Mr Gayles vanishes from his home one day, and is found to have been swindling his clients. Maybe Trent can track him down…
Well, Trent can. We, the reader, can’t. The central plan is very clever, and it is all explained by Trent, using some clues which we have been given, and some which we haven’t.

The Inoffensive Captain:

A code breaking story. A prisoner has escaped from Dartmoor after being arrested for jewel theft some time ago. Trent is drafted in to help recapture them, and possibly find the hidden booty. It has to be said Trent doesn’t seem inclined to actually help when it matters. I suppose a genius could figure out the coded letter concealing the location of the jewels, but the real fun is in the actions of the escaped prisoner.

Trent and the Fool-Proof Lift:

A landlord (a nice one, apparently) is found dead at the bottom of the lift shaft in the block of flats where his nephew lives. Trent quickly figures out which of the occupants killed him. This one felt like more of a grim story than the others; the crime is murder, the victim seemingly upstanding, and the killer a nasty piece of work. I liked Inspector Bligh, and the central clue is of the “why would the killer take X action” kind, which I enjoy.

The Old Fashioned Apache:

A well-respected retired lawyer gets bashed over the head in the woods; fortunately, the assault is interrupted and his life is saved. Trent uses some unusual letter snippets left at the scene to track down the assailant. The victim also recovers enough to give a dying-message style clue. A very weird story, to be honest, with a silly motive. Not exactly the best in the collection.

Trent and the Bad Dog:

An unpopular American houseguest is stabbed, and Trent figures out whodunnit. A fairly simple and quickly resolved story. The central trick is fairly clued, the killer’s backstory is not. The trick is a pretty good one, as is some – but not all – of the clueing.

The Public Benefactor:

An old friend of Trent’s believes he is going mad. Weird story, only lightly criminous. I can’t quite tell where Trent’s sympathies lie.

The Little Mystery:

Trent’s friend tells him she’s noticed odd things happening in her top-floor flat, though she assures him it’s not “one of your crime problems” (not quite sure why she thinks a break-in isn’t a crime). What’s going on turns out to be pretty creepy, in my opinion, but the characters seem remarkably unfazed by it.

The Unknown Peer:

A Lord Southrop appears to have driven his car to a beach in Devon, and then vanished. Of course, suicide is suspected. But Trent has other ideas, beginning with the man’s wine choices. A very neat and thorough bit of investigation from Trent, something like an investigatory road trip.

The Ordinary Hairpins:

Trent is asked, many years after the fact, to look into the presumed suicide of a famous opera singer. The most melancholy and lyrical of the stories. The deduction about the titular hairpins is good.

Trent and the Ministering Angel:

A bonus story – not included in the original release of Trent Intervenes, it’s available in the British Library’s Murder By the Book anthology, and was added to later versions of Trent Intervenes. It features the reappearance of a character from a previous story. Trent’s lawyer friend tells him of a strange visit requested by a client of his, who has since died. With the man’s wife always watching him and controlling every aspect of his life, did he nevertheless manage to pass on a message before he died? A combination code-breaking/general knowledge story, as Trent foils a horrible wife this time instead of a horrible husband. A fairly minor addition to the lineup.

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