Trent’s Own Case by E.C. Bentley and H. Warner Allen
One of the joys of my Christmas bookish gifts this year was a complete set of the Trent books by E.C. Bentley – not that that’s a huge collection, as he only wrote three! I reviewed the first, the seminal and very wonderful, “Trent’s Last Case”, here, and I loved this so much that I didn’t think it would be long till I got onto the second…
Fascinatingly enough, there’s quite a long gap between the first and the second of Trent’s adventures – “Last” was published in 1913 and “Own” didn’t appear until 1936. Bearing in mind the success of Bentley’s initial foray into detective fiction it *is* a little odd that he didn’t do more – but maybe he was just happy with the ones he wrote!
We are some years on from the events of “Last”, although the timing is kept vague and to be honest, there’s no real hint of the world being in the complex decade of the 1930s, with all that was going on in Europe at the time. Philip Trent is now married to Mabel, his beloved from the first book, and they have a small son. Conveniently, his family is away at his home in the Cotswolds and Trent is up in town doing a portrait of James Randolph, a rich philanthropist. Unfortunately, the millionaire is discovered murdered, and one of Trent’s friends is on the run as a suspect. However, the case is not so straightforward as it seems; and Inspector Bligh of the Yard, an old friend of Trent’s, is bothered by some peculiar aspects. Mix in a missing actress, an unpleasant playwright, a dodgy manservant, tons of blackmail, lots of red herrings and a mysterious champagne cork, and you have the ingredients for a cracking murder mystery!
One of the things I loved about Bentley’s books is the cleverness of the writing and plotting; this is a convoluted and complex story, with a number of different strands, false paths and twisty turns. Yet it reads brilliantly and it all comes together brilliantly at the end, making perfect sense. With “Last” I had no idea until the very end who had done it; but I have to confess that with this one I *did* work out who and how (but not quite why) fairly early in.
However, this didn’t spoil the enjoyment of reading the book; because it’s not only an excellent mystery, it’s also an excellent novel. Trent is a wonderfully engaging character, and the supporting cast are brilliantly portrayed too. Bentley is very good at letting a person’s true nature be gradually revealed, until we find out they’re really not the nice type we thought they were.
It happened in the courses of a long tramp in France with which Trent was refreshing his spirit after a long spell of work extending through a breathless London summer. It was now mid-September, and for a fortnight he had carried his nap sack through Lorraine and Burgundy, keeping up our national reputation for lunacy by marching long distances without being compelled to do so, avoiding cities, and halting for food and sleep at small country inns where an Englishman was as unfamiliar a sight as a crocodile.
Another lovely element is the range of the story; Bentley doesn’t just stick to one location (e.g. London), but instead has his characters roaming wide and free, from France to the Cotswolds, the boat train to the continent and back again. The denouement was very satisfying and Trent’s method of trapping his murdered was ingenious.
All in all, “Trent’s Own Case” was a great Golden-Age read, and I’d highly recommend it for any fan of the genre. As for why it’s the detective’s ‘own’ case? Well, that would be giving away too much – you’ll just have to read it for yourself to find out…. 🙂
As an intriguing aside, it’s interesting to note that H. Warner Allen wrote detective stories of his own, featuring a wine-expert-sleuth called Mr. Clerihew, apparently named for his friend Edmund Clerihew Bentley – and that wine expert makes an appearance in “Trent’s Own Case” to advise on the subject of champagne! 🙂