Trent’s Last Case (1913) – E.C. Bentley
Back in 1994, when I first joined the mystery e-list DorothyL, it was customary to choose a nom de clavier. Without hesitation I joined as Mabel Manderson – The Woman in Black – a character in one of my favorite mysteries, Trent’s Last Case. I recently got to read TLC again and my admiration for the book remains strong as ever.
E.C. Bentley, the creator of a verse form known as the “clerihew” (Bentley’s middle name), supposedly wrote Trent’s Last Case on a bet with his longtime friend, G.K. Chesterton. It was so difficult to write that Bentley named it Trent’s LAST Case, intending never to write another. In fact, he did write another Trent novel (Trent’s Own Case) over 30 years later, as well as several Trent short stories. But TLC turned out to be much more than the parody of detective fiction that he intended; it became a classic, and an influence on many authors to follow, most notably Dorothy L. Sayers. Without Philip Trent, there might not have been a Lord Peter.
In the days before TLC, most fictional detectives were modeled after Sherlock Holmes: infallible and coldly scientific. Bentley set out to create a more realistic detective who was both fallible and emotional; Trent falls hopelessly in love with Mabel Manderson, the wife of the murder victim, who is a prime suspect in the murder, and he resigns from the case. Trent’s solution of the Manderson case is ingenious, but Bentley does not end the book there, and the plot twists and turns for almost 100 pages more.
Trent’s Last Case holds up remarkably well almost a century after Bentley wrote it. Only Trent’s chivalry seems a bit dated, though charmingly so. Filled with humor and romance, as well as Golden Age fair play, this is one book that deserves its ranking among the classics of detective fiction.