Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley
If you’re a long-term reader like me, you probably have lists of titles you meant to read, you should read, you’d like to read, you think you’ve read but you want to read again, and so on. “Trent’s Last Case” is one of those titles, and it’s been on my radar for ages. It’s a pivotal book in the development of the Golden Age crime novel; published in 1913, it marked the transition from the more serious Victorian detective story (as exemplified by Holmes and his ilk), to the Golden Age tales, lighter in tone and often frivolous, although still with a core of steel. It’s a book I’ve wanted to read for a *long* time (in fact, I thought I might have read it once, but recognised nothing at all when I *did* read it) so being presented with a copy by OH at Christmas (and a first edition at that!) was a real delight.
“Trent’s Last Case” is in fact the first case we encounter him in and author E.C. Bentley wrote the book for his friend G.K. Chesterton (as is made clear in the dedication). Bentley had been very taken by his friend’s book “The Man Who Was Thursday” and had promised a detective story in return. The book opens with the murder of American tycoon Sigsbee Manderson, who has a country house in England (yay! classic country house setting!) As Manderson was not a pleasant person (what tycoon is?) there don’t seem to be too many people mourning him, but the markets are of course wobbly as a result! Enter Philip Trent, artist and amateur detective. We learn in back story that he’s investigated a number of mysteries on behalf of Lord Molloy, another tycoon (this time in the newspaper business), and he’s sent off to the country to look into the murder. There are peculiarities – Manderson was found fully dressed in the garden shot in the eye, fully dressed but missing his false teeth; his secretary Marlowe was sent off to Southampton on a strange wild goose chase on the night of the murder; and Manderson and his wife had seemed estranged in the time leading up to his death.
Fortunately, Trent’s reputation precedes him and so he’s allowed access to all areas. In addition, the Scotland Yard man on the scene, Murch, is an old colleague; and Mrs. Manderson’s uncle is an old friend of Trent’s. We’re treated to some lovely detection – footprints, alibi checking, fingerprints, cross-examining the servants – until Trent comes to a conclusion which he doesn’t actually want to reach…
To say too much about the book would spoil the joy of reading it, and it *is* a great joy. It’s wonderful written, very engaging and Trent is a fabulous character. This is no flimsy tale of mystery, but a substantial story, not only of murder and deceit, but also of love and emotions. Trent is smitten and after drawing his conclusions leaves the scene, only to return later and try to finally sort matters out. He’s a fallible hero, setting the pattern for later detectives (and I must admit that Wimsey sprang to mind more than once). Bentley plays with the reader wonderfully, and there are twists a-plenty, almost up to the last page.
“Trent’s Last Case” deserves all the accolades it’s received. It’s an absolutely engrossing read, one of those unputdownables that you almost want to read in one sitting because it’s so good and you want to find out what happens. Bentley went on to produce only two more Trent books (which are nestling nicely on Mount TBR!) and I’m really looking forward to reading them and finding out how Trent’s life progressed. If you have any love of Golden Age crime, this is an essential read – and if I gave star ratings this would definitely get a 10/10!