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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Trent's Last Case, by E.C. Bentley


Trent's Last Case
By E.C. Bentley
1913


If you can tell me at any time, how under the sun a man who put on all those clothes could forget to put in his teeth, you may kick me from here to the nearest lunatic asylum, and hand me over as an incipient dement. (Philip Trent)

As Edward Hoch noted in his review of Trent's Last Case, opinions on Bentley's book have been somewhat mixed, with Ellery Queen and G.K. Chesterton among those shouting hosannas to the heavens and many later reviewers not nearly so enthusiastic. I guess I'd put myself somewhere in the middle of the pack. Early on, I found myself thinking that this was one of the most readable and entertaining books I'd read for quite some time. I'm sorry to say that the center did not hold, although things did pick up again near the end.

It's kind of tricky to discourse about this one without spoiling the good stuff, but I'll give it a whirl. Artist Philip Trent is called to the mansion of a fabulously wealthy and successful businessmen, whose murder has rocked the business world, not to mention the world in general. Trent is there in his capacity as a freelance journalist but he conducts himself more like an amateur detective. During the course of his investigations he sews things up pretty neatly and moves on.

Which is where the story took a dive for this particular reader. It's probably not a spoiler to reveal that Trent falls hard for the widow of the victim, which is the part of the story that left me cold, given that he moons and mopes about like a love-struck dingbat. Fortunately, as I've already noted, things pick up considerably from here, with a couple of interesting twists that can’t really be discussed without giving away too much.

If Bentley's editor had excised that "Trent-in-love" section from the book you'd have a book that merits some pretty high praise. Even so I'd say it's a pretty decent effort. Although at no point while I was reading Trent's Last Case did it occur to me that it might be, as Wikipedia notes, "the first major sendup of that genre." I guess that's a matter of opinion. Either it's not at all or I'm just not a perceptive enough reader to have taken notice of that angle.

(This was the first of the books I committed to read for Bev Hankins' Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2012. It's also the last on the list chronologically, since I chose the Prehistory of Mystery as my theme. More about the challenge here and here is my list of books.)

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