(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Trent’s Last Case stands in the flagstoned hall of English crime fiction like a tall clock ticking in the silence, always chiming perfect time. From the well-bred simplicity of that famous, often-adapted title to the startling last sequence, everything is unexpected, delightful, and fresh. The ingenious plot twists through the book like a clear stream, never flooding, never drying up, but always glinting somewhere in the sunlight and leading on into mysterious depths.

In this landscape, the characters move clearly and memorably, casting real, rippling shadows and at times, as in real life, disappearing for a moment from view. It is a consciously moral vision, as the opening sentence proclaims: “Between what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely?” The morality, although not quite orthodox, is the morality of a decent man to whom life presents no alternative to decency. It is a morality that the hero and his creator share.

Trent’s Last Case is the work of a man who thought, as many have thought, that he could write a better detective story than those he had read. Having satisfied himself and others on this point, he did not write another crime novel until after he had retired from what he always regarded as his real work, newspaper journalism.

A better background for an English detective-fiction writer than E. C. Bentley’s is difficult to imagine. His father was involved with crime and its punishment through his work as an official in the Lord Chancellor’s department; Bentley’s own classical education, followed by three years studying history at Oxford, insisted on the importance of clear, grammatical speech and orderly ideas; in his period in chambers when qualifying as a barrister, he came into contact with the ponderous engines of judgment and witnessed the difficulties to be encountered encompassing the subtle complexities of truth; and finally, he had acquired the habit of summoning words to order in his capacity as a daily journalist.

To the happy accident of birth among the English governing class in its most glorious years, nature added a playfulness with words—a talent that brought a new noun into the English language. Bentley was sixteen and attending a science class at St. Paul’s when four lines drifted into his head:

Sir Humphrey DavyAbominated gravy.He lived in the odiumOf having discovered Sodium.

The form amused him and his friends, and he carried on writing in it, eventually for Punch, and published a collection in 1905. This collection, entitled Biography for Beginners, was Bentley’s first book; it was brought out under the name of E. Clerihew. For a time, clerihews rivaled limericks in popularity, and something of their spirit and cadence survives in the light verse of Ogden Nash and Don Marquis. Some of this playfulness shows through in Trent’s conversation; although Bentley hopes in vain that the reader will believe that Trent’s “eyes narrowed” as he spotted a clue and that “both men sat with wrinkled brows,” the style is generally nimble and urbane and does not impede the action.

The language runs aground only when confronted by American speech. These are the words in which the closest lieutenant of one of the most powerful men on earth addresses an English gentleman and a high-ranking Scotland Yard detective: “I go right by that joint. Say, cap, are you coming my way too?” Bentley edited and wrote introductions to several volumes of short stories by Damon Runyon, whose work he enjoyed all of his life, and it is likely that his American idiom derives from this source.

Trent’s Last Case

Bentley, in 1911, left the deputy editorship of the Daily News, which he had joined because it was “bitterly opposed to the South African war. I believed earnestly in liberty and equality. I still do.” He became an editorial writer for the Daily Telegraph, which gave him more time for himself. Trent’s Last Case came out two years later. It redefined the standards by which this kind of fiction is judged.

In Trent’s Last Case, an American...

(The entire section is 1779 words.)