Funny how age changes your view of a book. I’m thinking specifically of Trent’s Last Case, the famous detective novel published in 1913 by E.C. Bentley, and how my view of it has flipped between two readings 35 years apart. As a teenager of 14 or 15, when I first read it, I knew enough about the history of detective fiction to know the book’s stature as a classic of the genre. Blurbs on the edition I owned proclaimed its greatness. There was Dorothy L. Sayers: “...a tale of unusual brilliance and charm, startlingly original” and there was Agatha Christie: “One of the three best detective stories ever written.” I’m sure I wondered what the other two best detective stories ever written were, but for G.K. Chesterton, competition with other mysteries wasn’t even an issue. Trent’s Last Case was, in his words, “the finest detective story of modern times.”
Quite a build-up, and I remember starting the novel with great excitement. It’s a short book and I read it through quickly. The amateur detective, Philip Trent, investigates the English country house murder of an American business tycoon. In the course of his inquiries Trent pokes around, questions servants, utters witticisms and generally comports himself with all the confidence of a great sleuth. He diligently analyzes clues and, like any self-respecting detective of the Golden Age, he explains his reasoning in little bits and pieces, tantalizing both the reader and those around him in the story. At what seems the novel’s climax, he reveals his solution, certain of course that he has solved the case. But in fact Trent has misread all the clues and the solution that he lays out is not the true one. Later, over a hearty dinner, Trent is told the real solution. The person who tells him this dissects his reasoning, laying out with utter clarity every point Trent got wrong. Trent listens with “the pallor of excitement” and while gulping a lot of wine. Though he tries to retain his usual spirit of good humor, Trent in essence is humiliated. It is then that we learn why this particular amateur detective has worked his last case.
And as a teenager reading, avid mystery fan though I was, I said, “Huh?”