I’ll bellyache about my developing self-exile from all popular culture in another post. Suffice it to say, just now, that I’m thinking about trying to find good mystery stories from the past to read. In that spirit, I bought E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, one of the groundbreaking novels in the genre.
Edmund Clerihew Bentley has the distinction, not only of being the author of some seminal mysteries, but of inventing a form of light verse, a sort of short-cut limerick called the Clerihew. Here’s one of the more successful ones:
“The mustache on Hitler
Could hardly be littler,”
Was the thought that kept recurring
To Field Marshall Goehring.
On top of that he was a childhood schoolfellow and lifelong friend of G. K. Chesterton. So he comes highly recommended.
His novel, Trent’s Last Case, published in 1913, stars Philip Trent, a young artist who doubles as a crime reporter for a London newspaper. He is sent to a country estate in the wake of the murder of its owner, a predatory American financier. Faced with a confusing scenario – why was the victim dressed in mismatched clothes, and missing his false teeth? – he finally comes to a conclusion about whodunnit – which he suppresses for private reasons. But that’s only half the book. The second part involves a series of further revelations that confound all his conclusions.
It’s a clever book, in the English tradition (later established in the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction”) of the “cozy” puzzle mystery. But honestly, it’s all a little too clever for me. In order to fool the reader, the author (it seems to me) pushes and crosses the bounds of plausibility. He works hard to make it all seem consistent with real human nature, but he does not entirely succeed – in my view.
Also, the prose style somewhat irritated me. Granted the author lived before Hemingway, but when he gives us a short biography of each major character on their first appearance in the story, rather than showing us what they’re like through their words and actions, it seems like lazy writing to me. I mean, Conan Doyle was considerably older than Bentley, but he knew how to reveal a character.
I can’t condemn Trent’s Last Case – it’s an acknowledged classic. But for me it didn’t work very well. Your mileage will likely vary.
On the bright side, no content cautions at all are necessary.