Sunday Thoughts – the Bentley Edition

E.C. Bentley always said he wrote his milestone novel Trent’s Last Case as a reaction to the infallibility and overall lack of humanity of contemporary literary detectives – but do facts really borne out that claim? Bentley probably had superminds like Sherlock Holmes, Craig Kennedy or S.F.X. Van Dusen in mind, but were they really representative of the pre-modern Great Detective? As often happens truth is more complex than it appears at first sight.

There’s no denying here Bentley’s contribution to the making of the modern detective novel, which was decisive if not immediate, delayed that it was by the onset of WW1. What can be questioned however is the extent to which TLC was actually a departure from the genre as understood back then.

Philip Trent for instance was not the first Great Detective to make mistakes and get things wrong. A Scandal in Bohemia is an obvious precedent but we may also mention Robert Barr’s French sleuth Eugène Valmont whose most famous « exploit », The Absent-Minded Coterie, is actually a tale of a failure – not his first or his last for that matter. On the other side of the Channel, Arsène Lupin’s disastrous 813 venture comes to mind too. (Maurice Leblanc’s book, which predates Bentley’s by three years, shares another similarity with it, namely Lupin falling in love with the main female protagonist, which significantly alters his judgement) While not very common at the time (or afterwards, by the way) the idea of a detective not being infallible was thus not completely unheard of.

Nor were pre-Trent detectives mere « Thinking Machines » with no basic human feelings or features. Some undisputably were, but no serious reader can say Father Brown, Gabriel Hanaud, Martin Hewitt or even Dr. John Thorndyke to be remote human computers devoid of any warmth or empathy. Sure, none of them ever went as far as Trent in « being human » but neither did they play the same role in their respective narratives. What most differentiates Trent from his elders is that he is the focus of the story he appears in; he doesn’t have a Watson and the events are mostly seen through his eyes. Previous detectives were deus ex machina – Trent is an actual protagonist. One might say that Trent’s Last Case not only is the first modern detective novel but also and maybe above all the first novel about a detective.

As I said above, The Trent Effect was not felt until after WW1. It also wasn’t quite what Bentley expected. The Golden Age as we know it would not have been possible without TLC but the lessons it learned from it were not the ones Bentley had in mind. Most of the period’s leading mystery writers praised and imitated TLC’s complex and devious plotting – but very few adopted the fallible, « human » detective that it had claimed to introduce. The 1920s in particular were very much a continuation of Edwardian detective fiction though with stronger plots. Things started to change only in the following decade, largely thanks to avowed Bentley fan Dorothy L. Sayers. It’s a mystery however what Bentley, who was chosen in 1936 to succeed his friend G.K. Chesterton as President of the Detection Club, actually thought of his putative progeny.


3 commentaires sur “Sunday Thoughts – the Bentley Edition

  1. Do you think it would be instructive to chronicle how many times the sleuth in a narrative affected (for good or ill) the outcome of the story by interfering with the investigation like Trent does in his « last case »? His situation could be regarded as detective fiction’s equivalent of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, implying the « observer effect, » in which it’s impossible for a scientist to avoid affecting the outcome of an experiment without in some way interfering with it.

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  2. Coincidentally, I am reading « The Figure of the Detective: A Literary History and Analysis » by Charles Brownson (McFarland, 2014), and its Chapter 2 addresses the question to what extent Sherlock Holmes was merely cool/rational or also had warm/emotional character traits and tendencies. It may be of interest to you.

    I am only about one-third trough the book, but I think it is very good so far. Thoughtful and rigorous, without being turgid or overly focused on minutiae.

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