Published in 1913, Trent’s Last Case is considered one of the first “whodunits” – stories in which new clues appear throughout, making it possible for readers to feel as if they’re solving the crime along with the detective. Also, this Philip Trent mystery includes a “less than perfect” sleuth – in contrast to Sherlock Holmes. Agatha Christie called it one of the three best mystery stories ever written.
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A Stepping Stone for the Genre with (Too?) Much Praise:
The Anti-Detective Detective – Unlike G. K. Chesterton, Bentley wasn’t a fan of detective fiction. In fact, he disliked the detective fiction of his day, which he considered formulaic and humorless. Bentley wanted to create a detective who felt like a real human being with emotions. He didn’t want to create a quirky, analytical, infallible detective like Sherlock Holmes.
In this Philip Trent mystery, we’re told Trent is a famous detective. He had a “patrimony large enough to relieve him of the perilous imputation of being a struggling man.” He’s a cultured, successful painter and man about town. He analyzes clues and assumes he has solved the case. He falls in love with one of the suspects. He finds out “grave things … about [Manderson’s] death, things not suspected by anyone else ….” At the end, he learns that he reached the wrong conclusion.
Rival Detectives – Trent and Inspector Murch, one of “the ablest detectives at Scotland Yard,” are both interested in “the game,” which involved “strivings for the credit of the press and of the police.”
Trent’s Pretension – Trent points to a sentence in a letter he’s writing and notes only two words of more than one syllable: “This letter is meant to impress … We must have long words.” Words such as “terminological inexactitude,” a phrase introduced by Winston Churchill used as a euphemism for a lie or a substantially correct but technically inaccurate statement. Trent also likes to toss quotes from his favorite poems into “casual” conversations. Examples:
Love at First Sight Leads to … Melodrama – “The two things that had taken [Trent] utterly by surprise in the matter of his feeling towards Mabel Manderson were the insane suddenness of its uprising in full strength and its extravagant hopelessness.”
Casual Racism – The book includes racist ramblings about Native American peoples and even a song about African American people. These ramblings made the story very hard to read at time.
Certainty of Achievement – “There are moments in life … when that which is within us … lets escape into consciousness some hint of a fortunate thing ordained. Who does not know what it is to feel at times a wave of unaccountable persuasion that it is about to go well with him [and] success is at hand … The general suddenly knows at dawn that the day will bring him victory; the man on the green suddenly knows that he will put down the long putt. As Trent mounted the stairway outside the library door he seemed to rise into certainty of achievement.” Ever feel certain of your own achievement — a gut sense that everything’s going your way?
Fear – The “only thing that held [Trent] back was fear of an unfamiliar task. To react against fear had become a fixed moral habit with him.” Can anyone identify? Carolyn sure can.
The Modern Woman – Cupples says, “I have observed a sort of imitative hardness out of the products of the higher education of women to-day which would carry them through anything.” However, he says Mabel is different – refined, reserved, and filled with “womanly mystery.” For his part, Trent “went through life full of a strange respect for certain feminine weakness and a very simple terror of certain feminine strength.” Bentley sure seems terrified of women …
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Tea, Tonic, and Toxin is a book club and podcast for people who love mysteries, thrillers, introspection, and good conversation. Each month, your hosts, Sarah Harrison and Carolyn Daughters, will discuss a game-changing mystery or thriller from the 19th and 20th centuries. Together, we’ll see firsthand how the genre evolved.
Along the way, we’ll entertain ideas, prospects, theories, doubts, and grudges, along with the occasional guest. And we hope to entertain you, dear friend. We want you to experience the joys of reading some of the best mysteries and thrillers ever written.
Teasers & Tidbits
What do you think of when you hear the term “Victorian locked room mystery”? My first thought was of movies
Prior to hearing about The Big Bow Mystery, I had never heard of Israel Zangwill, author of this mystery novel.
The fact that there’s a Sherlock Holmes anti-Mormon controversy came as a surprise. (It’s probably a surprise to you, too.)