Trent’s Last Case by E. C. Bentley: First Among Mysteries?

By Sean Fitzpatrick

London, 1936.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was dead, leaving the President’s Chair of the Detection Club vacant.

Under deep mourning, the bereaved club members assembled to nominate a new president. Among those present were Fr. Ronald Knox, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and the late Mr. Chesterton’s friend of friends, Edmund Clerihew Bentley. The vote was taken. The motion was made. The new president-elect rose to be sworn into office by oath.

“Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”

“I do,” said E. C. Bentley, and assumed the presidential seat.

Though E. C. Bentley was a natural candidate for this position, he was something of an anomaly in that prestigious society of prolific mystery writers. Mr. Bentley had only written one mystery. But that one mystery, that single contribution to the genre of detective fiction, was hailed by Chesterton, Christie, and Sayers as, perhaps, the single best mystery story ever written. High praise indeed. Though Bentley’s first mystery, it featured the last mystery of his detective. And though President Bentley swore that he would defend the principle of detectives detecting crimes using the wits bestowed upon them by their creators, his own Trent’s Last Case could be seen as breaking that rule. For throughout the twists and turns of its scintillating plot, the impotence, instead of the omnipotence, of human reason is revealed.

Trent’s Last Case is such a marvelous mystery story precisely because it purposefully breaks from the beaten path of the marvelous mystery stories. Trent’s Last Case is the first case of its kind. In the words of E. C. Bentley from his autobiography, Those Days: “It should be possible, I thought, to write a detective story in which the detective was recognizable as a human being and was not quite so much the ‘heavy sleuth.’ …Why not show up the fallibility of the Holmesian method?”. . . (Read the complete article at Crisis Magazine