Saturday, 13 April 2013

Penguin no. 543: Trent's Own Case
by E.C. Bentley & H. Warner Allen

The house of Clerihew Bros. and Co. inspected, purchased and offered rare and ancient wines with a reverent dignity which made precious stones seem commonplace by comparison. The shop was an oasis of peace in the noise and mercenary bustle of the West End. Its panelling and its ancient floors, which dived capriciously in any plane but the horizontal, the collection of quaint historic wine bottles, and the unequalled excellence of the wines that were tasted within its precincts, made it a place apart. While the rest of London was demolishing the old and masking the beauties of the past under the unsightly dullness of modernity, Mr. Clerihew had been quietly busy preserving the traditional simplicity of his premises, and rescuing from the overlay of later bad taste the peculiar charm of the original building.

It is always a delightful moment when I see a box of Penguins waiting for me at the end of the driveway. I had such a moment recently when twenty-one old and predominately green books turned up in the mail, a very kind gift from Patrick O'Sullivan. They arrived only a few days before I was leaving for Europe and there was no time to look through them properly, but my attention was particularly attracted by this one, as it bears, on the inside front cover, an impressive list of plaudits from an impressive list of reviewers.

I realised a little too late that the commendations were for E.C. Bentley's earlier and similarly-titled book, Trent's Last Case. It was this earlier book which Agatha Christie asserted as 'one of the three best detective stories ever written' and which G.D.H & M.I. Cole jointly claimed to be the best detective story they had ever read. I have since read it and plan review it next, so I understand the reasons for their praise. This one, co-authored with H. Warner Allen, is fine: it is entertaining and well written, but it is seems fairly conventional when compared with the earlier book.

James Randolph is murdered early one evening when he is shot from behind in the bedroom of his small London flat while dressing for dinner. His body is found a few hours later when his butler Simon Raught returns around midnight from his scheduled night off. When the police arrive they discover that Randolph's safe has been ransacked and discarded wrapping paper litters his bedroom floor. Other items throughout the house which are clearly of value remain undisturbed.

Randolph had been known to the world as a philanthropist. He had been born into humble circumstances but had gone on to accrue a fortune through shrewd investments in real estate, and he had always lived relatively frugally, choosing to devote most of his income to the support of a vast array of charities, many bearing his name. It was suggested by some, however, that the motivation for his generosity may have derived more from the accolades than from any desire to improve the lot of his fellow men, for he seems to have been a man who wanted to be well thought of, who desired the awards which are bestowed by foreign governments, and who enjoyed being the guest of honour at dinners held by organisations he supported. Acclaim seems to have been the recompense he sought for his munificence.

And if he did have any compassion for others, then like Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House it was a feeling entirely limited to those he had never met. His caring was at a distance, while those who knew him, with a single exception, were wary of him and notably disinclined to express any admiration for a man they clearly viewed as disagreeable. Even his only son had chosen to forsake the family wealth at a young age rather than remain in close contact with his father. A letter received by the police the day following the murder may hint at the reasons those who knew Randolph were inclined to dislike him. It was a signed confession from the butler detailing his involvement in an unsolved burglary; it had been suppressed by Randolph while he lived and forwarded to the police by his solicitors when he died, and it can only be guessed what penalty he extracted from Raught as a consequence of this knowledge.

Philip Trent's crime-solving days are long behind him, and his main interest now is his painting. He had recently painted Randolph's portrait, but even more recently he had called on Randolph on a personal matter, and had been witness to the man's unpleasant temper. Perhaps by chance or perhaps by design, he seems to have been the last person, other than the murderer, to see Randolph alive.

But this is only one aspect amongst many which connect Trent with the murder and stimulate his interest: his friend Inspector Bligh is the detective in charge of the investigation and he wishes to make use of him as a sounding board, and then a long-time friend readily and perplexingly confesses his guilt, just after attempting suicide, and immediately before succumbing to mental collapse. As much as he respects the abilities of Inspector Bligh, Trent's personal knowledge has him doubting the confession and intent on finding the truth. It is soon clear that it had been the murderer's intention to create a false trail suggesting himself as the perpetrator, a plan which miscarried from the start, but which gives the book its name.

The disparity between how a man can be perceived by the world and how he really is, in this case assumed benevolent when really frugal, and caring when truly controlling, is an interesting sideline in what seems otherwise a fairly conventional detective story featuring an appealing and capable amateur sleuth and a victim no one seems too concerned to mourn. These latter elements also appear in Trent's Last Case, but this is in itself more interesting historically as it is such an early book, and he also puts them to a much more interesting use, with the easy confidence of the amateur sleuth integral to the story being told. But that is the story for next week.

4 comments:

  1. I've read Trent's Last Case, because Dorothy L. Sayers admired it so much & wrote to Bentley that Peter Wimsey borrowed from Trent. I bought a copy of this one when I came across it, but it's still sitting on the TBR shelves.

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  2. The 'C' in E.C. Bentley's name was Clerihew, which is an interesting aspect- did he really want to be a wine merchant? He also invited the Clerihew- a popular verse form- and named it after himself. As an economist you may appreciate this: John Stuart Mill,
    By a mighty effort of will,
    Overcame his natural bonhomie
    And wrote Principles of Political Economy

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  3. I also picked up Trent's Own Case in a batch of old Penguins, I thought that it had a promising start but then became quite dull

    http://0651frombrighton.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/trents-own-case-ec-bentley-and-h-warner.html

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  4. how glorious to come home to a box of penguins at the end of the drive!

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