Trent's Last Case

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Overview

A powerful and ruthless American capitalist is found dead in the garden of his English country house. But why is he not wearing his false teeth? Why is his young widow so relieved at his death? The artist and amateur detective Philip Trent arrives to find that there is more to the case than the solving of a puzzle: he must also accept his own fallibility, in detection and in romance.
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Trent's Last Case

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Overview

A powerful and ruthless American capitalist is found dead in the garden of his English country house. But why is he not wearing his false teeth? Why is his young widow so relieved at his death? The artist and amateur detective Philip Trent arrives to find that there is more to the case than the solving of a puzzle: he must also accept his own fallibility, in detection and in romance.
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Editorial Reviews

Encyclopedia Mysteriosa
Bentley's 1912 mystery masterpiece, Trent's Last Case, which introduced Philip Trent, a fallible, human detective with reconizable emotions, was astounding for its time and still stands up well today.
The Barnes & Noble Review

On the dust jacket of my old omnibus edition of E. C. Bentley's three books about amateur detective Philip Trent, there are blurbs from both Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. Christie declares that Trent's Last Case (1913) is nothing less than "one of the three best detective stories ever written," while Sayers asserts that "it is the one detective story of the present century which I am certain will go down to posterity as a classic. It is a masterpiece."

The enthusiasm of the creators of Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey is seconded by Howard Haycraft in his classic history, Murder for Pleasure, in which he writes that Trent's Last Case "stands truly first among modern examples of the genre. It is one of the great cornerstones of the detective story." He then quotes John Carter, author of a pioneering essay on collecting crime fiction, who maintains that Bentley is "the father of the contemporary detective novel." More recently, in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, Charles Shibuk asserts that Trent's Last Case is still "one of the ten best mystery novels of all time."

To write a book praised so highly, and by such distinguished authorities to boot, must be the secret daydream of nearly every writer. But for Edmund Clerihew Bentley, it was just a matter of keeping up with his pals. His closest friend, going back to their schooldays together, was G. K. Chesterton, who dedicated The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) to Bentley. (Kingsley Amis once called this nightmarish adventure story — about a strange cell of anarchists — the most exciting novel he had ever read. It is also a particular favorite of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.) As friends will, Bentley then returned the honor by dedicating Trent's Last Case to Chesterton. Even the editor for the English edition of this first novel just happened to be an old Oxford chum of the author named John Buchan, who would soon go on to compose the most famous of all pursuit thrillers, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915).

But did you notice Bentley's middle name? Long before he attempted a mystery, he was already famous as a poet. While a teenager at St. Paul's School, he amused himself by composing four-line nonsense verses that gently mocked famous figures in history. Chesterton illustrated some of them and, in 1905, they were collected in a volume called Biography for Beginners. Just a few years earlier yet another old Oxford classmate, Hilaire Belloc, had brought out The Bad Child's Book of Beasts (1896) and would soon follow its versified whimsy with the much more outrageous Cautionary Tales for Children (1907), the latter including such classics as "Matilda: Who Told Lies, and Was Burned to Death." But Bentley eschewed Edward Gorey–ish humor for a mild, malice-free silliness. His quatrains — soon immortalized under the name "clerihews" — are as addictive as they are deceptively simple. Here is one of his earliest:

Sir Humphry Davy
Detested gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.
This flair for poking fun slyly reappears in Trent's Last Case, which was conceived as "not so much a detective story as an exposure of detective stories." Bentley had grown annoyed with the Sherlock Holmes template, in which the all-knowing Super Sleuth was distinctly unreal, egotistic, and pompous. Instead, he intended to send up the genre by adopting a light, almost humorous tone, employing every cliché he could think of, starting with the murder of a millionaire at his country house. To top it off, he would give his hero the absurd last name Gasket. Fortunately, at the insistence of the American publisher of The Woman in Black — as the book was first called in this country, with an obvious echo of Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White — Bentley dropped Gasket for the punchier Trent. When, shortly thereafter, Nelson's brought out the novel in England, it was renamed Trent's Last Case, by which brilliant title it has been known ever since.

The story opens with an axiom-like sentence that describes the overall problem facing both the detective in a murder case and the reader of a murder mystery: "Between what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely?" In other words, which details are clues and which red herrings?

When the millionaire financier Sigsbee Manderson is found dead, shot through the eye, the evidence initially points to that ever- reliable suspect, a passing tramp. Suicide isn't entirely ruled out either. Manderson, though, was a ruthless Wall Street mogul, reminiscent of J. P. Morgan, and he had plenty of enemies, notably the striking miners he smashed in Pennsylvania. Perhaps they had sent an assassination squad to England? (In The Valley of Fear, which would appear in 1915, Arthur Conan Doyle would take up this same theme in earnest.) But there are suspects far closer to home as well.

Dispatched by a London newspaper to look into the case, the portrait painter and occasional sleuth Philip Trent travels to the Manderson country estate of White Gables. While checking into the local inn, he almost immediately encounters his elderly, bookish friend Nicholas Cupples, who turns out to be the uncle of the newly widowed Mrs. Manderson. Not surprisingly, Mabel — a name as bad as Gasket, if not worse — found her marriage to be an unhappy one, especially during the months just preceding the murder, when her husband treated her with only brutally cold civility.

In due course, Trent interviews the late millionaire's two secretaries, one American, one English, exchanges wisecracks and bits of poetry with Inspector Murch, makes some inquiries of his own, wonders about some odd details of the crime — why did Manderson go out on the night of his death without his false teeth? — and gradually finds himself falling deeply under the spell of the serenely beautiful and long-suffering Mabel.

Relying on his artistic intuition as much as ratiocination, Trent early on solves the murder but then decides to say nothing to the police or to the newspaper editor who has employed him. He is fortunate in this strange decision, because it turns out.... But it's best that I say no more of the plot, except to add that there are more twists to the Manderson affair than are dreamt of in Trent's philosophy.

What makes Trent's Last Case such an important book, however, isn't its intricacy so much as its tone. Bentley's hero is young, easygoing, witty, well educated, and fallible. After Trent falls in love with Mabel, he leaves England, hoping to forget her by immersing himself in the action-packed life of a foreign correspondent. A year later, when the two finally meet again, he sternly keeps his feelings hidden, displaying only gentlemanly politeness and amiability. All in all, Trent comes across as very much a forerunner to Lord Peter Wimsey, being given, as Bentley himself says, "to frivolity and the throwing about of absurd quotations from the poets at any moment." A quarter century later, Bentley's 1938 parody "Greedy Night" — the title recalls Sayers's Gaudy Night — would affectionately spoof the style of his greatest disciple.

Even though Trent's Last Case was acclaimed everywhere as "something new," went through multiple editions, and was translated into several languages, Bentley showed no interest in producing a sequel. A newspaperman above all else, he worked first for The Daily News and then for The Daily Telegraph, writing innumerable editorials on politics and foreign affairs. Only after he retired did Bentley finally bring out a second Trent novel in 1936, Trent's Own Case, in partnership with his friend H. Warner Allen.

Even if you've read Trent's Last Case sometime in the past, it bears revisiting. Dostoevsky once wrote that nineteenth- century Russian fiction originated in Gogol's short novel The Overcoat, and Hemingway declared that all modern American fiction came out of Huckleberry Finn. In like manner, by overturning the Sherlock Holmes formula, Trent's Last Case established a new one: The clever, lighthearted puzzles we associate with Christie, Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, and all the other members of England's Detection Club. Such intricate who- and howdunits are, of course, inherently artificial, as Raymond Chandler complained in "The Simple Art of Murder," but they do offer a pleasure seldom found in hard-boiled, brutally realistic American-style crime fiction. They engage our aesthetic sensibilities, as well as our intellects, without generating psychological or emotional turmoil. They are intentionally escapist, and virtually all the violence is offstage. No one closes a Golden Age mystery feeling shocked, drained, or violated.

As such, books like Trent's Last Case and its descendants are sometimes thought more appropriate for maiden aunts than for tough, red-blooded modern readers. Yes and no. The highest reaches of literature may be reserved for the tragic and the sublime, but people need humor and escape as well. I would hate to have to choose between P. G. Wodehouse and William Faulkner, if only because I would certainly miss The Sound and the Fury.

Summing up Trent's Last Case long ago, Douglas Thomson wrote in Masters of Mystery: "Never have the virtues of the genre been quite so elegantly displayed. The formal problem intertwined with the character problem; the sincerity of the character study; the honeyed morsels of sensationalism; the trail of the red herrings, inside and outside the plot; the naturalness of the 'motivation'; the tenseness and also the humour of the situation; and ever and above all, that supreme climax." In other words, dear reader, you're in for a treat.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist for The Washington Post Book World. He is the author of the memoir An Open Book and several collections of essays, including Classics for Pleasure. His latest book, On Conan Doyle, has been published by Princeton University Press.

Reviewer: Michael Dirda

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781842831823
  • Publisher: Soundings, Limited
  • Publication date: 8/28/2002
  • Series: Sound Series
  • Format: Cassette
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 7 Cassettes, 8 hrs. 24 mins.
  • Product dimensions: 6.42 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 1.24 (d)

Meet the Author

Simon Vance is a prolific and popular audiobook narrator and actor with several hundred audiobooks to his credit. An Audie(R) Award-winner, Vance was recently named "The Voice of Choice" by "Booklist" magazine.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 5 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 17, 2010

    One twist after another!

    Philip Trent, gentleman and sometime reporter, takes on the case of solving the murder of millionaire Sigsbee Manderson at his country estate. Along the way he makes the fatal mistake of falling for the beautiful widow, who may or may not know more than she's telling. And even when Trent thinks he finally has it all figured out, there remains at least one more twist.

    This is a phenomenal example of the Golden Age of Mystery, when writers were trying to break from the model of the invincible detective, ala Sherlock Holmes. There really is nothing to dislike in this clever book. Highly recommended for any lover of mysteries.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 11, 2013

    recommended

    To many characters, otherwise a good story.
    Jamesmorris

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  • Posted March 7, 2012

    Good plot but very wordy

    An old mystery in some old fashioned wording.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 17, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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