It would be hard to invent a background more representative than Edmund Clerihew Bentley’s of the English Edwardian governing class. His father was an official in the Lord Chancellor’s department, the equivalent of a ministry of justice. He was educated at a private London boys’ school, St. Paul’s, and at nineteen, he won a history scholarship to Merton College, in Oxford. He made friends at school with G. K. Chesterton, who remained his closest friend for life, and at Oxford University with John Buchan and Hilaire Belloc. All would become famous writers.
At Oxford, Bentley became president of the Oxford Union, a skeleton key to success in many careers, and experienced the “shame and disappointment” of a second-class degree. Down from Oxford and studying law in London, he published light verse and reviews in magazines. In 1901, he married Violet Alice Mary Boileau, the daughter of General Neil Edmonstone Boileau of the Bengal Staff Corps. Bentley was called to the bar the following year but did not remain in the legal profession, having, in the words of a friend, all the qualifications of a barrister except the legal mind. He went instead into journalism, a profession he loved and in which he found considerable success.
For ten years, Bentley worked for the Daily News, becoming deputy editor. In 1912, he joined the Daily Telegraph as an editorialist. In 1913, he published Trent’s Last Case. It was an immediate, and, for its author, an unexpected success. Strangely, nothing was heard of its hero, Philip Trent, for another twenty-three years.
Although Trent’s Last Case was repeatedly reprinted, translated, and filmed, Bentley went on writing editorials for the Daily Telegraph, and it was not until two years after his retirement from journalism in 1934 that there appeared Trent’s Own Case, written with H. Warner Allen. A book of short stories, Trent Intervenes, followed in 1938, and Those Days: An Autobiography appeared in 1940. Elephant’s Work, a mystery without Trent, which John Buchan had advised him to write as early as 1916, appeared in 1950.
In 1939, with younger journalists being called to arms, Bentley returned to the Daily Telegraph as chief literary critic; he stayed until 1947. After the death of his wife in 1949, he gave up their home in London and lived out the rest of his life in a London hotel. Of their two sons, one became an engineer, and the other, Nicolas, became a distinguished illustrator and the author of several thrillers.