Trent’s Last Case, by E.C. Bentley, has long been recognised as a landmark in the genre. Although Bentley, a successful journalist, intended his story as a light-hearted debunking of detective fiction, the cleverly plotted book enjoyed startling success on its first appearance before the First World War began, and has stood the test of time. Previously, the best work in the genre had been in the short story, with Sherlock Holmes to the fore. Once the war was over, the scene was set for the emergence of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and the other novelists of ‘the Golden Age’.
The title of the book was self-explanatory. Bentley had no plans for a follow-up, or further detective fiction. But over the years, his resolve weakened. Trent appeared in a number of short stories, ultimately collected in Trent Intervenes, and eventually in a second novel, Trent’s Own Case. But the latter was a collaborative effort: it appeared under the joint names of Bentley and his friend H. Warner Allen. Warner Allen was a wine buff and wrote prolifically about alcohol. He produced a few crime novels, at least one of which featured a sleuthing wine merchant, Mr William Clerihew. The detective’s name hinted at the Bentley connection; Bentley’s second forename was Clerihew, and it was the name he gave to the four-line verse form that he invented, with assistance from another master of the detective story, G.K. Chesterton. Allen’s short story ‘Tokay of the Comet Year’, featuring Mr Clerihew, was reprinted in Jack Adrian’s excellent anthology Detective Stories from the Strand Magazine (1991).
Sayers was a passionate admirer of Trent’s Last Case, and she became a good friend of Bentley. On receiving her copy, she wrote to him on 17 April 1936, saying that the new book ‘is completely delightful. I do wish to Heaven that you had given us more of these books, instead of letting twenty years flow between the banks of Trent! With you to help us, we should not have taken half as long to get detective fiction recognised as literature.’ She heaps praise on the novel, and acknowledges ‘how much Peter owes to Trent, besides his habit of quotations.’ It seems that part of the purpose of the letter was to provide material for a ‘blurb’ for use by Bentley and his eminent publisher Michael Sadleir (who was also an expert bibliographer, but perhaps best known as author of the scandalous-in-its-day novel Fanny by Gaslight.) Poor old Warner Allen does not even rate a mention in her letter. Possibly his contribution to the book was mainly in the realm of plot construction, rather than the actual writing – but Mr Clerihew does make a fleeting appearance.
On 21 May 1936, the ‘Trent Dinner’ took place, no doubt to mark the return of the great detective. At least two copies of the book were signed by the luminaries present and, it is believed, one was kept by Bentley, the other by Warner Allen. The photographs here are of the Warner Allen copy, which he appears to have inscribed and presented to ‘PWB’ in 1942. The half title is signed by Sayers, Bentley, Warner Allen, Sadleir, Henry Wade (an excellent, under-rated crime novelist and one of my personal favourites), Frank Swinnerton (a popular novelist of the time, and notable critic and biographer, but not a crime writer), Milward Kennedy (a reviewer who also wrote a handful of detective stories), Nicholas Blake (who became a highly respected crime writer as well as, under his own name, Cecil Day Lewis, Poet Laureate), Freeman Wills Crofts and Martha Smith and dated 21.5.36. Crofts, along with John Rhode and Anthony Berkeley, earned a cruelly disparaging mention in Sayers’ letter to Bentley: ‘you have the enormous advantage over them of knowing how to read and write’. In the case of Berkeley, the slight seems very unfair: he was not only a first-rate innovator, but also a decent writer, whereas for all their skill at plotting, Crofts and Rhode were, as Julian Symons has said, essentially ‘humdrum’.
Sayers was, surely, too heavily influenced by friendship in heaping praise on Trent’s Own Case. It is a competent detective story, but nothing out of the ordinary, and certainly not in the same league as its famous predecessor. But the Trent Dinner copy conjures up in my mind a fascinating picture of a group of literary friends gathering together over a meal (no doubt with excellent wine chosen by Warner Allen) to celebrate the rebirth of a legendary detective. What one would give to have eavesdropped on the conversation at the dinner table…
And there is one lingering mystery about the signatures in the book. Who was Martha Smith? She was not a writer, but the secretary of Michael Sadleir, and evidently someone for whom he had the highest regard.