Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956) was an English author, humorist, journalist, friend of G.K. Chesterton, and the inventor of the "clerihew" a four-line comical non-rhythmic biographical verse. Here is one from the introduction to this edition:
Sir Humphrey Davy
He lived in odium
Of having discovered sodium.
Trent's Last Case was not only Bentley's first murder-mystery, but a first of its kind: a gentleman sleuth who made
human errors. It was published in 1913 when Sherlock Holmes was king of the detectives, a larger-than-life hero, a perfect genius in his field. Trent is
sharp, but in the end, finds he was totally in error of who did what, and why. And not only that, he falls in love with one of the possible suspects. He vows
to never take on another case. But he does, 23 years later! (Trent's Own Case), and in a Trent collection of short stories. There were rumors, denied
by Bentley, that Chesterton had bet him he couldn't write a mystery, but nevertheless, Bentley dedicated this one to Chesterton.
Sometimes I can be rather dense concerning murder-mysteries, even when the solution is spelled out in front of me. Not with this one! I "got it," right away, but that's not to say Bentley didn't weave a complicated plot. However, reading it was not complicated. One can breeze through the 163 pages of the Dover edition with ease and eagerness.
Sigsbee Manderson was not a well-loved person. He was a wealthy New York financier. "Many a time when he 'took hold' to smash a strike, or to federate the ownership of some great field of labour, he sent ruin upon a multitude of tiny homes; and if miners or steel-workers or cattlemen defied him and invoked disorder, he could be more lawless and ruthless than they. But this was done in the pursuit of legitimate business ends."
Therefore, when he turns up dead one morning in England where he and his young British wife have a summer home, nobody but those connected with his business feel much sorrow. Still, the case is strange, and the proper authorities are called in to investigate. When Mr. Bunner, Manderson's American secretary calls Sir James Molloy, the managing director of both the Record and the Sun, all is set abuzz, with reporters sent down to Marlstone, near Bishopsbridge.
Enter Philip Trent, gentleman, artist, occasional journalist, and amateur sleuth. However, as for the last title, he has earned a reputation for cracking cases which baffled even the professionals. And so Molloy calls him, interrupting a painting, and sends him down to Marlstone, too.
Before he arrives at White Gables, the summer house where the crime had taken place, he meets with an old friend, Mr. Nathaniel Burton Cupples, retired banker, and childless widower, who is staying at the hotel in Marlstone. Trent listens as Cupples shares what he knows, but the shock comes when he finds that Mrs. Manderson is Cupples's niece, whom he and his wife raised as a child. Cupples wants to make certain that Trent knows the sort of person she is, lest she somehow become one of the suspects. Trent learns that she has given him free reign to investigate the household, but as she has already made her statements to the police investigator, she prefers to now be left alone.
As Trent seeks to understand the case, he discovers that the relationship between the Mandersons was not on good terms. Mable, Cupples's niece, was much younger than her husband, and married him probably more as a starry-eyed admirer than as a life partner. Still, they had a cordial, or perhaps polite relationship until just recently. Something was seriously wrong, and Manderson had become very distant and cold to his wife, although they did not fight and never discussed the issue. This was not a secret, and the servants and household knew it, as did Cupples, who called Manderson out on it shortly before he died.
As for the death circumstances, Manderson was found outside the house, by a shed, with a gunshot wound in the eye which went through his head. He was known to be meticulous about his appearance, however when found, he was fully dressed in a clean suit, but without his dentures. His shirt sleeves were stuffed up into his jacket, and there were marks on his wrist. Very odd about the teeth.
Marlowe is the other secretary, and he is British. Trent interviews him, and he tells him that Manderson had sent him on a six-hour drive (in a very slow car) to meet with a Mr. George Harris, whom he never finds. However, Manderson drives with him a short way, then gets out of the car and walks back.
Martin the butler is able to verify Marlowe's story, because he had heard just a snippet of the subdued conversation between Manderson and Marlowe. Later, Martin also verifies that he saw and spoke to Manderson when he returned from the short car ride, and Manderson's wife also remembers her husband entering their adjoining bedrooms and, though still half asleep, asking him a question, which he answers in an unusual way.
However, after Trent has done his questioning, he takes some fingerprints while the others are at the inquest. The fingerprints all belong to Marlowe. And even worse, Trent has fallen hopelessly in love with Mabel Manderson. He draws the only logical conclusion from the evidence he has gathered, and puts it all together in an ingenious way: Marlowe and Mabel are lovers, and Marlowe killed Manderson. He confronts her with the evidence in an envelope, but does not turn it in to the authorities. Then he leaves the country to try to forget Mabel, and all of it.
But not only does he not forget, and later finds he had drawn all the wrong conclusions. Thankfully, his suspicions had been kept between himself and Mabel.
This is really a quite clever story; fun and entertaining reading. If you like mysteries that are complex, yet easy to understand, it is a great one to read!
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