A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Edward D. Hoch:

E. C. BENTLEY – Trent’s Last Case.

E. C. BENTLEY Trent's Last Case

Thomas Nelson, UK, hardcover, 1913. First published in the US as The Woman in Black, Century, 1913. (Later US editions have the British title.) Reprinted many times in both hardcover and paperback. Also available as an online etext.
   Silent film: Broadwest, 1920 (Gregory Scott as Philip Trent; Richard Garrick, director). Also (with partial sound): Fox, 1929 (Raymond Griffith as Philip Trent; Howard Hawks, director). Sound film: British Lion, 1952 (Michael Wilding as Philip Trent; Herbert Wilcox, director).

   One of the true cornerstones in the development of the modern detective novel, Trent’s Last Case has received high praise for more than seventy years. G.K. Chesterton (to whom the book was dedicated) called it “the finest detective story of modem times,” while Ellery Queen praised it as “the first great modern detective novel.”

   Later critics have tempered their praise somewhat, and Dilys Winn’s Murder Ink even lists the book in its Hall of Infamy among the ten worst mysteries of all time.

E. C. BENTLEY Trent's Last Case

   But there can be no doubt as to the book’s importance, especially in the character of detective Philip Trent. Before Bentley’s creation of Trent, fictional detectives had always been of the infallible, virtually superhuman type exemplified by C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes.

   English artist Philip Trent, investigating the murder of a wealthy American financier for a London newspaper, represents the birth of naturalism in the detective story. He falls in love with the victim’s widow (the woman in black of the original American title), who is the chief suspect in the case, and he is far from infallible as a detective.

   Bentley wrote the book as something of an exposure of detective stories, a reaction against the artificial plots and sterile characters of his predecessors. But despite Trent’s fallibility, his detective work is skillful. The ending, with its surprise twists, is eminently satisfying.

   Though slow-paced by modem standards, the book has a graceful prose and quiet humor that have stood up well with the passage of time. Mystery readers were not to see anything remotely like Trent’s Last Case until Agatha Christie’s initial appearance with The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920.

E. C. BENTLEY Trent's Last Case

   Happily, Philip Trent’s last case wasn’t really his last, though E. C. Bentley waited twenty-three years before producing a sequel, Trent’s Own Case, written in collaboration with H. Warner Allen.

   This time Trent himself is the chief suspect in a murder case, and if the book falls short of its predecessor, it is still a skillful and attractive novel.

   Bentley followed it with thirteen short stories about Trent, written mainly for the Strand magazine, twelve of which were collected in Trent Intervenes (1938), a classic volume of anthology favorites. A final thriller, Elephant’s Work (1950), is more in the style of John Buchan and is less successful.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.