Aug 30, 2010

Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley

Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley

Don’t let the title fool you: Trent’s Last Case is in fact the first mystery featuring Philip Trent, E.C. Bentley’s gentleman of leisure turned crime reporter slash sleuth. Published in 1913, the book is a precursor to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and Trent was repeatedly mentioned by Dorothy L. Sayers as an influence on Lord Peter Wimsey - this being, of course, the reason why I read this book.

Trent’s Last Case opens with the murder of Sigsbee Manderson, an American businessman and millionaire. Mr Manderson is found dead outside his house in the early morning – he’s been shot through one eye in a way that excludes the possibility of suicide. Puzzlingly, he took care to dress carefully before going out in the middle of the night for unknown reasons, but forgot his denture on his nightstand.

Philip Trent is called in to investigate the murder by an old friend with a personal interest on the case: his niece is the now widowed Mrs Manderson, and he fears that, because her experience of widowhood has been akin to that of the protagonist of Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour”, suspicions will fall on her. Trent’s objectivity is supposed to be an advantage, but it doesn’t take him long to get personally involved himself: the more he gets to know Mrs Manderson, the more drawn to her he feels.

Much to my delight, there are indeed quite a few similarities between Trent’s Last Case and Dorothy L. Sayer’s mysteries. The premise – a woman being suspected of a murder because she was in an unhappy relationship with the murdered man, and our sleuth falling in love with her – is reminiscent of Strong Poison (or rather, the other way around), which is another love story slash mystery. The characterisation may not be quite as in-depth as Sayers’, but then again I’m saying this after spending only one book with these characters; to be fair, they are satisfyingly complex and human. Most interestingly of all, this is a story about personal relationships, marriage, respectability, and what hides behind the “polite fictions” of society, as Trent calls them. This is one of the things I most enjoy about classic mysteries (and their precursor, the sensation novel): they allow a glimpse behind the curtain of respectability at a time when this was still a rare thing.

Bentley’s portrait of Mrs Manderson was a pleasant surprise: not only is she allowed a voice, but her marital unhappiness and her refusal to be a trophy wife are taken absolutely seriously. But then, what did I expect of a writer Sayers enthusiastically endorsed? The following passage, though worded a little dramatically, does a great job of conveying the dullness and despair of the life of an intelligent woman trapped in a world where she’s not allowed to do more than look elegant and be a society lady:
Can you imagine what it must be for any one who has lived in a world where there was always creative work in the background, work with some dignity about it, men and women with professions or arts to follow, with ideals and things to believe in and quarrel about, some of them wealthy, some of them quite poor; can you think what it means to step out of that into another world where you have to be very rich, shamefully rich, to exist at all—where money is the only thing that counts and the first thing in everybody’s thoughts—where the men who make the millions are so jaded by the work, that sport is the only thing they can occupy themselves with when they have any leisure, and the men who don’t have to work are even duller than the men who do, and vicious as well; and the women live for display and silly amusements and silly immoralities; do you know how awful that life is? Of course I know there are clever people, and people of taste in that set, but they’re swamped and spoiled, and it’s the same thing in the end; empty, empty! Oh! I suppose I’m exaggerating, and I did make friends and have some happy times; but that’s how I feel after it all. The seasons in New York and London—how I hated them! And our house-parties and cruises in the yacht and the rest—the same people, the same emptiness.
This brings me to yet another very interesting thing, which is Trent’s Last Case portrait of modernity. Much to my surprise, the other book this reminds me of was The Great Gatsby: both are acutely lonely stories set in social worlds where people are seen as disposable, and both deal with the ruthlessness of the modern world, particularly the world of money and business. As Trent is told at one point,
This is a terrible time in which we live, my dear boy. There is none recorded in history, I think, in which the disproportion between the material and the moral constituents of society has been so great or so menacing to the permanence of the fabric.
It’s interesting to find this state of mind expressed so clearly before the Great War. I’m far from a Luddite myself, and looking back on the early twentieth century from a distance things don’t seem as bad as all that. But knowing what we know, we can’t really just dismiss those who were pessimistic and wary of unchecked progress.

Trent’s Last Case is also full of other fascinating period details, like the fact that cars, telephones, and the collection of fingerprints were all still novelties that required some explaining. I couldn’t help but smile at this passage:
‘I expect you both know what the back-reflector of a motor car is.’
Trent nodded quickly, his face alive with anticipation; but Mr Cupples, who cherished a mild but obstinate prejudice against motor cars, readily confessed to ignorance.
As for the mystery itself, obviously I can’t tell you all that much, but I will say that it’s a good one. It’s a little convoluted and impossible for readers to guess on their own, but it’s satisfying all the same. The whodunit is supposedly solved halfway through the book, and it’s then that things get truly interesting. There are twists, turns, yet more twists, and always more to the truth that you suppose: you don’t get the full story until the very end. Best of all, Trent’s Last Case is very much a psychological mystery. More than the details of the crime, what keeps you reading is being eager to find out what motivated this or that person to do such and such – and that’s my favourite kind of crime story.

(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll add your link here.)


  1. Sounds like a fun read! I still need to read something by Sayers, too.

  2. I'm convinced, added it to the tbr! :) I still have to read Sayers' books that have Harriet Vane, but I think I'm getting better at reading crime fiction with more serious themes.

  3. Ana, Ana, Ana, I've asked you before, but you failed me. So I'm going to ask again--will you please start reading some books that DON'T sound so damn good?!! My three-volume wish list and the sagging floor in the library just can't take much more!

    But on another note, does the reader find out why the book is titled such?

  4. One of these years (since I pretty much can only read mysteries once or twice a year) I'm going to have to read an older mystery like this or like Dorothy Sayers. The oldest I've read is Agatha Christie.

  5. I love the inclusion of period details - like someone being unfamiliar with cars - when they are integrated seamlessly into the text. It adds such a wonderful air of authenticity.

  6. I had not ever heard of this book or series, but the fact that it is so highly endorsed by Sayers really catches my attention. I am going to have to check this out, and the fact that the mystery is well done intrigues me all the more. Great review, Anna! I am glad this was such a satisfying read for you!

  7. This sounds like a mystery that I'd love to read! I enjoy the genre, but I haven't been reading many of the classic mysteries. And I love the fact that there are twists and turns in this book - that's my fave!

  8. I absolutely love mystery thrillers but have never pursued the older ones. This just sounds perfect! Plus, you get all that period detail which must add to the overall experience.

  9. Well, I already love Bentley because of his clerihews, so I hardly need to be persuaded to read a proper book by him! Do you know his clerihews? I like the one about George the Third ("George the Third / Ought never to have occurred. / One can only wonder / At so grotesque a blunder"), and I wish Bentley had lived longer and written thousands more.

  10. Wow. I don't think I've ever anything like this before. I wonder how much influence this particular author had on the detective fiction golden age?

  11. Do you prefer mysteries the reader can guess on their own? I can't decide if I do or not! :)

  12. I don't know the author, but I like whodunit books. I'm gonna retain the title ^^

  13. This sounds like a great read. I really like mysteries that are full of twists, and it will be fun to read something that influenced Sayer!

  14. I bought a Dorothy Sayers book because of your posts! Bushman's Honeymoon! Haven't read it yet though.

    I researched uh, the date of death of Bentley and checked the availability of this one and was happy to find out that this book and another (The Woman in Black) is already part of the public domain hence free for download! Yay!

  15. One of these times I'll have to try one of these mysteries you keep reviewing. They sound great!

  16. I haven't finished reading Sayer's Gaudy Night yet, but this looks good. Love the mention of The Story of an Hour, that is one of my all time favorite short stories.

  17. Sayers is one that I haven't started yet but I definitely mean to get to her books at some point! Now I'll remember to read these as well. I love "golden age" detective stories.

  18. Care: Yep, you do :P

    Bina: I guess it helps to think of them as period novels that also happen to feature a mystery?

    Debi: Yes, but to say why would be a spoiler :P

    Amanda: I can't believe I haven't read any Christie myself! Especially as I've been having such a mystery-ish reading year.

    Trisha: It really does! And it was such fun to read those explanations of things that are completely obvious to us.

    Zibilee: I hope you enjoy it if you decide to pick it up :)

    Emidy: I've been having a lot of fun with classic mysteries this year - I feel that it's the newer ones that I need to start exploring more.

    Sandy: Mystery classics are such fun! I wouldn't have said this a year ago, but now I know better :P

    Jenny: lol! That's perfect. I had no idea about his clerihews.

    Jen: It seems he had quite a bit of influence!

    Amy: I'm actually not sure! Normally I'm horrible at guessing even the most obvious of solutions, so I guess it doesn't make that much of a difference to me :P But I've seen others say that they're disappointed if the clues aren't there.

    Erato: I hope you enjoy it!

    Belle: Some of these twists really took me aback! Which only made them more fun :P

    Lightheaded: Yes, there is a free e-book of this! That's how I read it :P About Busman's Honeymoon: It's a WONDERFUL book, but the worst possible place to start. You need to read the other Harriet Vane books (Strong Poison, Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night) books first, or else it won't have much of an emotional impact at all.

    Amy: I think they are, but then I would ;)

    amcatoir: One of mine too!

    Kristen: I'm starting to realise that I do too!

  19. I can't believe I've never heard of this. And I call myself a mystery fan. Tsk!

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