RE-INVESTIGATING TRENT’S LAST CASE
This piece originally appeared in slightly different form on Criminal Element.
Funny how age changes your view of a book. I’m thinking specifically of Trent’s Last Case, the famous detective novel published in 1913 by E.C. Bentley, and how my view of it has flipped between two readings 35 years apart. As a teenager, when I first read it, I knew enough about the history of detective fiction to know the book’s stature as a classic of the genre. Blurbs on the edition I owned proclaimed its greatness. There was Dorothy L. Sayers: “...a tale of unusual brilliance and charm, startlingly original.” And there was Agatha Christie: “One of the three best detective stories ever written.” I’m sure I wondered what the other two best detective stories ever written were, but for G.K. Chesterton, competition with other mysteries wasn’t even an issue. Trent’s Last Case was, in his words, “the finest detective story of modern times.”
Quite a build-up, and I remember starting the novel with great excitement. It’s a short book and I read it through quickly. The amateur detective, Philip Trent, investigates the English country house murder of an American business tycoon. In the course of his inquiries, Trent pokes around, questions servants, utters witticisms and generally comports himself with all the confidence of a great sleuth. He diligently analyzes clues and, like any self-respecting detective of the Golden Age, he explains his reasoning in little bits and pieces, tantalizing both the reader and those around him in the story. At what seems the novel’s climax, he reveals his solution, certain of course that he has solved the case. But in fact Trent has misread all the clues and the solution that he lays out is not the true one. Later, over a hearty dinner, Trent is told the real solution. The person who tells him this dissects his reasoning, laying out with utter clarity every point Trent got wrong. Though the detective tries to retain his usual spirit of good humor, he is in essence humiliated. It is then that we learn why this particular amateur sleuth has worked his last case.
And as a teenager reading, avid mystery fan though I was, I said, “Huh?”
I distinctly remember this feeling of puzzlement mixed with slight disappointment. I must’ve muttered something like, “That’s how it ends?” I felt that I had to be missing something. What were the mystery writer giants raving about? The book was readable, yes, and I hadn’t actually disliked it, but compared to Christie or Conan Doyle or John Dickson Carr or Ellery Queen, E.C. Bentley’s work was a letdown.
Cut to 35 years later.
I’m 50 at this point and I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary noir fiction. Recently having finished a noir novel, I got the urge to read an old-fashioned detective tale. During my teen years, I read the Golden Age whodunits voraciously, but I seldom read them anymore. Nothing against them, but one or two brilliantly contrived puzzles a year is enough for me now.
So what to pick? I could read one I’ve never read but in fact it’s P.D. James and her book Talking About Detective Fiction that pushes me back toward Trent’s Last Case. In her superb overview of detective fiction, which I’d recently read, James discusses E.C. Bentley’s book. Without over-praising it, she points out its strengths, and she acknowledges its influential place in detective fiction history. I’m reminded of how it didn’t live up to the hype for me so many years ago. Should I give it a second chance? It’s been so long, I can’t remember the plot details. I certainly don’t remember who the killer is. It would almost be like reading the book for the first time. But this time I know more about the book’s background and that knowledge has created a context that may change how I regard Trent’s Last Case.
I know that E.C. Bentley was a friend of Chesterton’s (thus the hyperbolic Chesterton blurb) and that like Chesterton he worked as a journalist in Britain. I know that Chesterton most likely encouraged him to write the book. But unlike the creator of Father Brown, Bentley had a modernist sensibility and he didn’t hold classical detective fiction in high esteem. In fact, he disliked the Sherlock Holmes stories, considering them too formulaic and devoid of humor. The many quirks of Sherlock Holmes annoyed him and what Bentley wanted to craft in his own detective character was a full-blooded human being with emotions. He didn’t want what he saw as an eccentric, analytical machine. At the same time, he intended to write a send-up of a detective story. His book would be a small satire of the genre, not an all-out embrace of the mystery form. This is the information I knew going into my second reading, but of course I couldn’t know whether I’d like the book any more the second time around than I had the first.
Answer: I did.
To begin with, the opening section describing the soon-to-be victim Sigsbee Manderson surprised me with its forthrightness. Its depiction of the Wall Street financier has a contemporary ring:
One who spoke the name of Manderson called up a vision of all that was broad-based and firm in the vast wealth of the United States. He planned great combinations of capital, drew together and centralized industries of continental scope, financed with unerring judgment the large designs of state or private enterprise. Many a time when he ‘took hold’ to smash a strike, or to federate the ownership of some great field of labor, he sent ruin upon a multitude of tiny homes; and if miners or steel-workers or cattlemen defied him and invoked disorder, he could be more lawless and ruthless than they. But this was done in the pursuit of legitimate business ends.
Manderson has houses in the U.S. and England, and his murder in Britain, of course, is big news. Philip Trent is called onto the case by the uncle of Manderson’s widow, and the uncle completes the victim’s portrait:
I could only put it that one felt in the man a complete absence of the sympathetic faculty. There was nothing outwardly repellent about him. He was not ill-mannered, or vicious, or dull—indeed, he could be remarkably interesting. But I received the impression that there could be no human creature whom he would not sacrifice in the pursuit of his schemes, in his task of imposing his will upon the world.
The description of a cold, almost sociopathic businessman sounds especially modern, and it’s a sign that Bentley was eager to bring a piece of the real world into his mystery story. He is creating something more than an abstract puzzle with a cardboard-thin murder victim. Still, once we get to the descriptions of Trent, the tone lightens considerably.
“A painter and the son of a painter,” Trent is described as a man whose “best aid to success had been an unconscious power of getting himself liked.” He is a man usually in “good spirits” and with a “lively, humorous fancy.” Clearly this is no detective in the mode of Sherlock Holmes or Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin or any number of other moody, quirk-laden detectives of the period. But he is no mental lightweight either. Though not connected to the police, he has helped them solve murder cases, and it is no wonder that when he starts his work on the Manderson case, he thinks that it “might turn out to be terribly simple.” He’s a man riding high on a crest of success.
Never anything but oblivious to his own views, Trent hones in on a suspect and proceeds methodically to build a case against him. He pieces together his solution using logic and the evidence available. He marshals the clues in a coherent fashion. The reader is as sure as he is that he has the right man.
Near the end of the book Trent confronts that man (though politely, in the style of the time) and lays out his case. But of course the twist in Trent’s Last Case is that Trent is wrong, and it is precisely this twist, annoying to me when I read it as a 15 year old, that I appreciated as a 50 year old. Appreciated and admired. “I am afraid I startled you,” Trent hears the real murderer say, and one can imagine how readers of the time were startled. Trent the man of perpetually high spirits breathes out “in a laugh wholly without merriment.” Not that contemporary readers will react with amazement; we’re accustomed to stories with fallible detectives and endings that reveal a bitter truth. For that matter, the tradition goes back to perhaps the very first “detective” story, Oedipus Rex. But in the realm of popular mystery fiction, Bentley without question did something innovative and unusual for his time, and what’s also true is that as a mystery genre reader I needed time and mystery reading experience to “get” it.
I don’t think Trent’s Last Case is one of the two or three greatest mystery novels ever written. Readers now will find the mechanics of the crime somewhat convoluted (though this is par for the course in many a Golden Age mystery), and Bentley’s desire to create a fully human detective leads him down one questionable path: he has Trent fall in love with Manderson’s widow. The love angle plays an important part in the story, and while it does add to Trent’s richness as a character, it is handled with a gravity at odds with the lightness throughout the rest of the book. Though sometimes the reader is invited to chuckle at Trent (even when he gets the solution wrong) the love story is written in such a way that we’re supposed to take its outcome quite seriously. There is a slight inconsistency in tone here.
That said, anyone who likes Golden Age mysteries and who’s looking for a witty and diverting work from that period could do far worse than Trent’s Last Case. It is over 100 years old, and it holds up well. You won’t find it as astounding as Bentley’s contemporaries did, but you’ll have an enjoyable, intriguing read and you’ll be reading one of the most influential detective novels ever written.
Scott Adlerberg lives in Brooklyn. He is the author of the Martinique-set crime novel Spiders and Flies, and his short fiction has appeared in Thuglit, All Due Respect, and Spinetingler. Each summer he hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series in Bryant Park in Manhattan. His new book is the genre-blending noir/fantasy novella Jungle Horses.
MUG SHOT: TIM HALL
Tim Hall is the author of the Bert Shambles Mysteries, a New Adult series featuring an economically disadvantaged young man solving crime in the Long Island suburbs. The first installment, Dead Stock, published last year by Cozy Cat Press. The second book, Tie Died, is expected in 2015. He lives in New York City with his wife and son.
- What is your writing routine?
I write in the mornings before going to work or later in the evening after my son has gone to bed. Sometimes both.
- Tell us about your current project.
The second installment in my Bert Shambles series, Tie Died, is being prepped by my publisher for a spring 2015 release. I also have a collaboration with S.A. Solomon scheduled for the upcoming Cannibal Cookbook anthology being edited by Dana C. Kabel.
- Which writers, living or otherwise, would you host at a dinner party and why?
I'm going to say Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, Ayn Rand, and Agatha Christie, because that would be a nutty group. Generally, I find that dead writers have better table manners.
- What do you enjoy about your MWA membership?
I love the sense of community, the supportive environment, the educational programs, and most of all the other members. It's a wonderful organization.
NO EASY CATEGORIZATION: INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR PETER MAY
With the arrival of The Chessmen in bookstores this February, Peter May’s dark and violent trilogy about Fin Macleod, an ex-detective from Edinburgh who returns home to the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, comes to a close. But May’s American beachhead is just beginning. The Glasgow-born writer, who now lives in France, builds a following here, led perhaps by New York Times reviewer Marilyn Stasio, who wrote, “Peter May is an author I’d follow to the ends of the Earth.”
May thinks his trilogy—Blackhouse and The Lewis Man are its other two titles—will find fans in the U.S.
“The Scottish island setting is an exotic one,” he said during a recent interview, “entirely outside the experience of most Americans, while at the same time many people in the United States have connections to Scotland. More than that, however, is what I like to think of as the universality of the stories. Because they are to a large extent an exploration of the human condition, to which people can relate.”
May follows other Scottish writers whose hard-boiled thrillers have crossed the Atlantic—Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, and Val McDermid are prominent examples—but don’t suggest that May is a “Tartan Noir” writer, as these other writers are sometimes labeled.
“I have never liked the term ‘Tartan Noir,’ he said. “It is a specious tabloid creation to lump together a very disparate group of writers who have achieved enormous success. The variety of story and setting, of culture and approach [in these novels] for me defies that kind of easy categorization. I am happy to be thought of a Scottish writer—because I am Scottish, and I write.”
Indeed, the singular viewpoint in May’s stories initially made his books a tough sell.
“The Blackhouse received the best rejection letters I have ever read,” he said. “Every editor loved the book but wouldn’t see where it might fit on their lists. They were, in fact reflecting the essential conservatism of British publishing just after the turn of the century, when all every editor seemed to be looking for was ‘the next Ian Rankin.’”
After The Blackhouse became a success, publishers wanted May to turn it into a series.
“I refused,” May said, “on the basis that the average murder rate on the island was only one per century. Writing a trilogy was the compromise, and in order to retain some sense of realism I had to dig into the past for my crimes.”
May’s decision emerged from the regard for the islanders that was nurtured when he spent the better part of five years on Lewis in the 1990s creating Machair, a TV series performed entirely in Gaelic.
“Islanders, although many of them live hard, are essentially good and honest people,” May said.
And the fact that the trilogy is over, May said, means just that: it’s over.
“In my latest book, there is not an island in sight,” May said. “Runaway is set between Glasgow and London, and between 1965 and 2015. But the book I am currently working on sees a return to the Hebrides—though not to the characters of the trilogy. There will be no more Fin, I’m afraid.”
Gerald Bartell reviews thrillers for the Washington Post, the Kansas City Star, and the San Francisco Chronicle. His travel writing has appeared in the New York Daily News, AAA Car&Travel, OutTraveler, and many other publications. He has a master’s degree in cinema studies from NYU and in journalism from Penn State.
CRIME FICTION ACADEMY OFFERS TUITION DISCOUNT TO MWA-NY MEMBERS
Are you looking to learn how to finally write that private eye novel? Or do you want to figure out what's wrong with the one you've already written? If yes, then it may be time to get schooled. And there's never been a better time. The Crime Fiction Academy, part of The Center for Fiction, is offering a 10% tuition discount to members of the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America for their spring 2015 session. Classes begin February 10.
Authors and courses scheduled for this session are::
▪ Alison Gaylin on "Crafting the Perfect Crime Novel"
▪ Jonathan Santlofer on "Advanced Crime Fiction Writing"
▪ Duane Swierczynski on "Learning from the Masters"
The Crime Fiction Academy debuted in 2012. Students are taught by successful practitioners of the genre, and classes take place in The Center’s eight-story building at 17 E. 47th Street in Manhattan. Every writer enrolled in CFA attends a 12-week writing workshop (divided up into two six-week sessions), plus master classes with experts in the field. All classes, workshops, and lectures take place in the evening.
To enroll for the spring 2015 session, email firstname.lastname@example.org with proof of membership (your membership card!) to receive the discount. The CFA has also be kind enough to extend the discount to members of any MWA chapter who may happen to be in New York this spring.
—Richie Narvaez, President, MWA-NY