March 19, 2009

Trent's Last Case ***

*** Trent's Last Case, E. C. Bently, 1991

[Note: This review was written in 2003.]

With an introduction by Dorothy Sayers, a dedication to G. K. Chesterton and a quote from Agatha Christie calling it "One of the best detective stories ever written," what more recommendation could the fan of classic whodunits desire? With such attributes, one would expect this book to be part of the standard reading for readers of detective fiction. To the contrary it is relatively unknown, even among fans of the genre.

The first Trent book is somewhat ironically titled Trent's Last Case. The author indicates in the note to Chesterton that it was written in return for The Man Who Was Thursday. Sayers indicates in the introduction that legend has that it was written on a bet. I suspect that it was intended as the only Trent book, since a second and final novel by Bentley featuring Trent (Trent's Own Case) appeared 23 years later, co-authored with H. Warner Allen. They stand as a matched set of gems, like a treasured pair of diamond earrings. Classic whodunit fans could wish for a whole necklace of such gems, but one mustn't be greedy. We must be grateful for the two we have. (I did discover references to a collection of short stories called Trent Intervenes and a novel called Trent and the Ministering Angel, both from 1938, but I have never seen them.)

Written and set in the 1910's, like Sayers' work it features a debonair dilettante as the detective. Trent is an artist, the painting kind, with a flair for deduction. The back-story indicates that he became involved in detection after solving a crime by reading nothing but the details in the newspaper. When he wrote a long letter to the editor of the Record with the solution, the paper offered Trent a position as their occasional representative to cover other crimes, where he beat the authorities to the solution. Soon his skills in deduction and writing earned him a national reputation.

In this story, the solution of the mystery is fairly straightforward, moves along swiftly and is revealed a little over halfway through the book. Bentley has a fine hand for characters and Mr. Cupples particularly shines in the early chapters. With the solution unfolded so soon, one can be sure that more revelations are in store, regardless of how conclusive the evidence and Trent's deductions appear to be. Twists pop up, down to the very last chapter, which caught me completely off guard even though I read this book several years ago. (No comments about age, please.)

Interestingly, Bentley works a romantic interest into the story, which accounts for the delayed resolution. It works well, even if it seems to me to be a slight distraction. On the other hand, the pre-crash atmosphere of big business and speculation before WWI is a nice backdrop for a whodunit and a nice nostalgic touch, even if it wasn't nostalgia at the time it was written.

As Sayers says in the intro, "If you were so lucky as to read it today for the first time, you would recognize it at once as a tale of unusual brilliance and charm." You should take the effort to hunt this one down. It's not easy to find. I'll loan you mine if I still have it.

Other works by E.C. Bentley:

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