Even though the name of this book is Trent’s Last Case, the novel is actually about the FIRST detective case of detective Philip Trent.
Published in 1913, the main character, Philip Trent, is an artist, freelance journalist, and amateur detective sent to report on a case involving the murder of an American business tycoon in his English country home. The book was also a debut for the author – E.C. Bentley, who happened to be a close friend of fellow detective novelist G.K. Chesterton. (The book was published as The Woman in Black later that same year in the United States.)
Shortly after Trent’s Last Case appeared, praise started pouring in from other popular writers of detective stories. Agatha Christie said she considered the book to be “one of the three best detective stories ever written.” Dorothy Sayers said it was a “tale of unusual brilliance and charm, startlingly original.” And G.K. Chesterton declared it to be “the finest detective story of modern times.”
Not Quite the Golden Age … but Close
Because Trent’s Last Case was published in 1913, it is not typically considered to be part of the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction” – encompassing murder mysteries written largely in the 1920s and 1930s. (Bentley’s other two books featuring detective Philip Trent – Trent’s Own Case and Trent Intervenes – were published more than 20 years later.)
However, at least one reviewer DOES classify the book as a “Golden Age” piece of detective fiction.
“… Bentley’s desire to create a fully human detective leads him down one questionable path: he has Trent fall in love with Manderson’s widow. The love angle plays an important part in the story, and while it does add to Trent’s richness as a character, it is handled with a gravity at odds with the lightness throughout the rest of the book.”
Apparently, Bentley wanted to create a sleuth who had more of a sense of humor than Sherlock Holmes did – “a full-blooded human being with emotions.” One way this book IS similar to stories about Sherlock Holmes (and later Golden Age detectives) is the surprise ending.
Hollywood Embraced the Philip Trent Mystery
As with most popular mysteries, Trent’s Last Case eventually made its way onto the “silver screen.” Michael Wilding and Margaret Lockwood starred in the 1952 version, but neither achieved fame because of it. Silent versions of the same book had been produced decades earlier – in 1920 (UK) and 1929 (US).
The second book in this series (Trent’s Own Case) features an interesting element that may come as a surprise to those who read the first book. The plot in that story involves champagne. The third book, Trent Intervenes, is a compilation of 11 short stories.
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Trent’s Last Case is the only mystery starring detective Philip Trent that we’ll be featuring on our podcast. Subscribe to the podcast, and check out our Trent’s Last Case discussion questions. And let us know if there are any other books you’d like to see us mention in our blog, podcast, or book club in the future!