A journalist and author best remembered for inventing a form of four-line droll poetic biography that bears his middle name is an unlikely author, you might think, of one of the classic crime novels in English literature. Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956) wrote Trent’s Last Case, which was first published in 1913. It has been filmed three times, first as a silent film in 1920, again (directed by Howard Hawks) with both a silent and talkie version in 1929, and – the version I will refer to – in 1952, directed by Michael Wilcox.
The book’s title is misleading, as it was actually the first time the character of Philip Trent had appeared. The novel is regarded as a classic, and was widely admired by such fellow writers as Dorothy L Sayers, but it seems odd that Trent only featured in two more books and then only after a gap of many years.
Philip Trent is a successful painter, journalist – and amateur detective. He is summoned by his sometime employer, newspaper boss Sir James Molloy, to investigate the shooting of American businessman Sigsbee Manderson, at his country house in the south west of England. Manderson was a ruthless plutocrat who had made many enemies in his pursuit of riches, but even discounting those, the house itself offers a hatful of suspects, including the butler, Mabel (Manderson’s wife) and two male secretaries who dealt, respectively, with his social and business affairs.
Check the date of publication. 1913. I am not sure if The Moonstone (Wilkie Collins, 1868) is exactly a Country House Mystery, but I can’t think of anything else that comes before Trent’s Last Case that includes elements we have come to regard as staples of the genre – the grand house, the butler, the maids, the examination of movements and motives among the house residents. Remember that it was to be another seven years before Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the subsequent flowering of such companion talents as Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham. To put Bentley’s novel into sharper context, bear in mind that His Last Bow and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes were still be published, in 1917 and 1927 respectively.
So, to the book, the film and how they relate to each other. Readers of the book may have to keep pinching themselves so that they remember this takes place in 1913. We are still, despite ‘Bertie’ dying three years earlier, in Edwardian England. The ravages of The Great War were still to come. The film sets the action pretty much contemporary with the production, that is to say, post-war England. In the novel, we only see Sigsbee Manderson through Trent’s examination of his personal possessions, and the testimonies of the other inhabitants of White Gables. The box office potential of having Orson Welles play the odious businessman, however, was obviously too much for the producers to resist, and the big man (right, complete with strange prosthetic nose) puts in a characteristically bravura performance in a flashback cameo towards the end of the film.
The film is workmanlike and sticks fairly closely to the narrative of the book, including the eventual solution to Manderson’s death. Although the film ends with Margaret Lockwood (Mabel Manderson) and Michael Wilding (Trent) having a fairly chaste snog, the screenplay doesn’t come close to the intensity of Trent’s infatuation – although he behaves like a perfect gentleman – with Mabel. The film Trent is matinee-idol suave – as indeed Wilding was at this stage of his career – but is much tougher than Bentley’s Trent. Not that the Trent in the book is flabby. In between the initial investigation and the denouement, Trent goes away and acts as a war correspondent in a blood-soaked civil war somewhere in Central Europe. It is more that the literary detective is much more loquacious and passionate, and is given to quoting Shelley and Swinburne.
Again, I say remember the date. 1913. Some critics have even suggested that Bentley had his tongue discreetly in his cheek when he wrote the novel, but by the time the film was made, almost forty years and two world wars later, huge swathes of the novel would never have got into the script, and the social and emotional nuances would have bemused 1950s cinema audiences.
To sum up, Trent investigates, gets it almost right, falls in love with the widow, sets out his solution on paper and then, unwilling to disclose his solution for fear of the hurt it will cause, goes off to a frightful war to seek oblivion. When he returns, he presents his version of events, only to find he was correct in all but the crucial detail of whose finger was on the trigger when Manderson was shot. The book is spirited, and full of entertainment as Bentley harmlessly shows off how clever he is. The film does an adequate job and is worth watching, if only for Orson Welles hamming it up for dear life, and a brief appearance by Kenneth Williams (even then as camp as a row of tents) as the gardener (below) who discovers the body.