20210329

Trent’s Last Case

A look back at the career of E C Bentley who wrote the detective novel that heralded the Golden Age

E C Bentley intended his novel to be a send-up of the detective genre
E C Bentley intended his novel to
be a send-up of the detective genre
The writer and journalist E C Bentley, who is credited with writing the first modern detective story, Trent’s Last Case, died 65 years ago today in London.

Agatha Christie, who wrote her own first detective novel seven years later, said Trent’s Last Case was ‘one of the best detective stories ever written’.

Dorothy L Sayers, whose first detective novel was published in 1923, said Bentley’s novel ‘holds a very special place in the history of detective fiction.’

But when Bentley wrote Trent’s Last Case, first published in 1913, he intended it to be a major send-up of the genre, which had tended to feature intellectual detectives lacking any obvious human failings.

Edmund Clerihew Bentley was born in London in 1875. He was educated at St Paul’s School and Merton College, Oxford, and then studied Law in London while working as a journalist for several newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph. Although he was called to the Bar in 1902 he continued to work for the Daily Telegraph until he retired in 1934.

But he returned to the newspaper after World War II started because younger men were being called up, retiring again in 1947.

He became friends with the writer of the Father Brown stories, G K Chesterton, while they were still at school and later in life they were both, in turn, president of the Detection Club.

Agatha Christie spoke in glowing terms of Trent's Last Case
Agatha Christie spoke in glowing
terms of Trent's Last Case
Bentley started work on Trent’s Last Case in 1910 having had the idea for ‘a detective story of a new sort...’

Bentley thought it should be possible to write a detective story in which the detective was recognisable as an average, fallible human being.  He said: ‘It was not until I had gone a long way with the plot that the most pleasing notion of all came to me: the notion of making the hero’s hard won and obviously correct solution to the mystery turn out to be completely wrong…’

The story begins with a powerful and ruthless American capitalist being found dead in the garden of his English country house, fully clothed, but without his false teeth. His young, beautiful widow seems relieved by her husband’s death. The household also includes a butler, a French maid and two young male secretaries.

It appears to be an intriguing case and therefore artist, journalist and amateur detective Philip Trent is sent to investigate by his newspaper.

Bentley planned his novel in just a few weeks while walking from his home in Hampstead to his office and he began work on it by writing the final chapter first.

In the novel, he allows his hero, Trent, to fall in love with the beautiful widow, which was at the time considered against the rules of the genre. He then introduces a plotting innovation that qualifies Trent’s Last Case to take its place among the great detective novels of all time.

The Collins Crime Club edition of Trent's Last Case
The Collins Crime Club edition
of Trent's Last Case
All detective writers that came afterwards owed a debt to Trent’s Last Case. Bentley’s experiment, with a detective who, unlike his predecessors, is a fallible human being and is operating within a cleverly constructed plot culminating in a surprise solution, prepared readers for the advent of an era in which they would learn to expect the unexpected. Trent’s Last Case heralded the Golden Age of detective fiction.

Bentley was to point out later that it does not seem to have been noticed that the novel is not so much a detective story as an exposure of detective stories.

My copy of Trent’s Last Case, produced by Collins Crime Club, contains an Afterword by Dorothy L Sayers, which was taken from the draft of a talk she had written about a possible radio adaptation of the book, although there is no evidence that the talk was ever delivered.

Dorothy writes: ‘If  you were so lucky as to read it today for the first time, you would recognise it at once as a tale of unusual brilliance and charm, but you could have no idea how startlingly original it seemed when it first appeared. It shook the little world of the mystery novel like a revolution, and nothing was ever quite the same again. Every detective writer of today owes something, consciously or unconsciously, to its liberating and inspiring influence.’

I found this particularly interesting as I recalled that in Dorothy’s first novel, Whose Body?, she used the technique used by Bentley in Trent’s Last Case, of a character dressing in the murder victim’s clothes and sleeping in his bed in order to confuse the authorities about the time of death. Whether this was ‘consciously or unconsciously,’ borrowed from Bentley, we don’t know.

I found Trent’s Last Case gripping and well written. I enjoyed it particularly because there isn’t just one surprise at the end, but two. However I don’t want to give anything else away. In the words of Dorothy, it is sufficient to say the novel is ‘a masterpiece.’

Michael Wilding (above) played Trent opposite the deceased's widow Margaret Lockwood in the 1952 film
Michael Wilding (above) played Trent opposite the
deceased's widow Margaret Lockwood in the 1952 film
Challenging the rules and conventions of detective fiction was not Bentley’s only literary innovation.

His first collection of poetry, Biography for Beginners, published in 1905, made a form of verse popular, which became known as the clerihew, after his middle name. This four line metrically irregular verse is one of his early examples of the clerihew:

‘Sir Humphrey Davy

Abominated gravy

He lived in the odium

Of having discovered Sodium.’

Bentley dedicated Trent’s Last Case to G K Chesterton saying he owed him a book in return for Chesterton dedicating the Man Who Was Thursday to him.

Trent’s Last Case was adapted into a film three times, in 1920, 1929 and - with Michael Wilding as Trent in a cast featuring Margaret Lockwood and Orson Welles - in 1952.

After 23 years, Bentley relented and decided Trent hadn’t had his last case after all. He wrote Trent’s Own Case in 1936 and a book of short stories, Trent Intervenes, in 1938.

Trent’s Last Case was republished in paperback by Collins Crime Club in 2020.

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20210323

Call Mr Fortune

A look back at the writing career of H C Bailey

Henry Christopher Bailey was a Daily Telegraph journalist from 1901-46
Henry Christopher Bailey was a Daily
Telegraph journalist from 1901-46
The crime writer H C Bailey died 60 years ago today in Llanfairfechan in North Wales. He was 82 years old.

Bailey was a prolific writer of detective short stories and his series character, Reggie Fortune, appeared in more than 100 stories and some novels between 1920 and 1950.

A journalist on the Daily Telegraph between 1901 and 1946, Bailey worked as a drama critic, war correspondent and writer of editorials.

His sleuth, Reggie Fortune, is medically qualified as a surgeon, therefore he is known as Mr Fortune in the stories. Bailey was writing about him during the Golden Age of detective fiction but his stories are much darker than those of many of his contemporaries and involve subjects such as murderous obsession, police corruption and miscarriages of justice.

Henry Christopher Bailey was born in London in 1878 and studied classics at Oxford University, graduating with a BA in 1901.

He began his writing career by writing romance and historical fiction. His first novel, My Lady of Orange, was serialised in Longman’s Magazine between December 1900 and May 1901 and he went on to write another 29 novels in the same genre.

Bailey’s first collection of Reggie Fortune stories, Call Mr Fortune, was published in 1920.

The copy of Call Mr Fortune I read is a reprint by Leopold Classic Library
The copy of Call Mr Fortune I read
is a reprint by Leopold Classic Library
I read the first story in the book, The Archduke’s Tea, and agreed with other readers who had commented that the style seems very dated. Mr Fortune, who is upper class and good humoured, is standing in for his father, who is a doctor in general practice in an affluent suburb of London.

Hardly has his father left to go on holiday than Reggie receives a call to attend the house of an Archduke, the heir apparent to the Emperor of Bohemia, who has been knocked down by a motor car and brought home unconscious.

On the way, as Reggie is driven to the house by his chauffeur, he finds a body in the road, a man of the same build as the Archduke, who has also been knocked down and is dead.

At the house Reggie speaks to the Archduke’s wife, his brother and the servants. He examines his patient, who is unconscious but stable.

He finds a clue to what has happened to the Archduke and decides to seek a second medical opinion.

When he has worked out what has been going on, and the significance of the body in the road, he sets a little trap for a member of the household.

At this point in the story he establishes himself with the reader as not just a medical practitioner but as an amateur sleuth with a sharp mind.

By the end of the story he had risen still further in my estimation by achieving his own version of justice. Could Reggie Fortune be an early version of the maverick detective character so popular with writers who came afterwards?

Bailey was to write 12 collections of Reggie Fortune stories as well as some Reggie Fortune novels.

A member of the Detection Club, along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, Bailey also created another series character, Joshua Clunk, a lawyer who exposes corruption and blackmail and appears in 11 novels published between 1930 and 1950. 

Although Bailey’s stories and novels were out of print for a long while, many of the titles are now available in republished versions.

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20210322

Enter a Murderer

Complimentary theatre ticket gives Inspector Alleyn a front row seat for murder

Patrick Malahide played Alleyn on TV in the 1990s
Patrick Malahide played
Alleyn on TV in the 1990s
Ngaio Marsh draws on her experience as a theatre director in New Zealand to describe the background of her second Inspector Roderick Alleyn novel published in 1935.

In Enter a Murderer, she places Inspector Alleyn near the front of the audience at a London theatre when one of the actors is shot dead on the stage.

A character in the play is meant to be shot with a gun loaded with dummy cartridges, but when he falls down and the horrified cast realise he is dead for real, the gentleman detective, Alleyn, suspects foul play immediately.

He had been invited to the theatre by his friend, the journalist Nigel Bathgate, who he met when investigating the death of a guest at a country house party in the first novel, A Man Lay Dead.

Nigel has been given complimentary tickets for the play by his old University friend, Felix Gardener, who is playing the male lead in the production.

Alleyn and Bathgate visit Felix in his dressing room before the play starts and are actually introduced to Arthur Surbonadier, the actor who is going to be the murder victim. He is clearly the worse for wear because he has been drinking and demonstrates that he is jealous of Felix because of his blossoming relationship with Stephanie, who is playing the female lead.

Alleyn and Bathgate leave to take their seats front of house because they feel uncomfortable in the acrimonious atmosphere of the dressing room.

After Arthur has been shot and it becomes clear that he really is dead, the production is halted and the audience sent home.

You can read Ngaio Marsh's first three Alleyn novels in one volume
You can read Ngaio Marsh's first
three Alleyn novels in one volume
Helped by his team who arrive from Scotland Yard, Alleyn secures the forensic evidence and interview all the members of the cast.

At this point I was surprised by Alleyn’s demeanour as he makes jokes for the benefit of Bathgate and his fellow officers, which hardly seemed appropriate, but then I thought of Dorothy L Sayers and her sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Margery Allingham and her investigator, Albert Campion, and I realised this clowning around was the fashion at the time and perhaps a nudge to the reader not to take the story too seriously.

I was also surprised Alleyn allows Bathgate to play an active part in the case and sit in on the interviews and take notes.

Bathgate is involved in the investigation in Ngaio’s first novel, A Man Lay Dead, but that was because he was actually staying in the house where the murder investigation takes place and couldn’t be sent away.

But then I realised Bathgate is kept around in Enter a Murderer to be the Watson for Alleyn. He gets to know some of what the detective is thinking but not all of it and, like the reader, he has no idea what to expect at the end.

I was slightly disappointed at the denouement when Alleyn uses the same trick as in the first novel, A Man Lay Dead, and holds a re-enactment of the murder. This time he has all the actors taking part, which eventually leads the murderer to incriminate himself.

But Enter a Murderer certainly fulfils what the reader expects from a detective novel as it is an interesting story with a surprise at the end. Ngaio describes life backstage at a theatre very well, drawing on her own experiences of acting and directing

Ngaio Marsh
Ngaio Marsh
Her great passion was the theatre and she joined a touring company in New Zealand as an actress in 1916. Later in life, she directed several of Shakespeare’s plays for New Zealand audiences and lived long enough to see the theatre firmly established in her own country and provided with proper financial support.

The University of Canterbury in New Zealand named their theatre the Ngaio Marsh Theatre and she was made a Dame in the 1966 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to the arts.

The title, Enter a Murderer, is taken from a line of stage direction from Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth.

Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh is available as a hardback, paperback, Kindle or Audiobook. I read it as part of an omnibus edition comprising A Man Lay Dead, Enter a Murderer and The Nursing Home Murder - the first three Roderick Alleyn mysteries.

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20210319

Setting, setting, setting!

Important advice for aspiring crime writers from author P D James

Over the years P D James has consistently maintained that setting is a key element in a detective novel.

When I interviewed her for a newspaper feature in the 1990s she said her own novels were nearly always inspired by a particular place she had visited.

She loved the East Anglian coasts, Suffolk in particular, and set many of her novels in seaside towns she found particularly inspiring, having explored them thoroughly to enable her to describe the setting for her stories evocatively.

Helpful book for novice
 crime writers
She believed that it is only if the action is firmly rooted in a physical reality that the reader can fully enter into the world of the characters. She agreed with the many crime fiction readers who have said convincing characters are important, but felt the setting for a novel, the place where the characters live and move about, is also a vital element.

In her book Talking about Detective Fiction, P D James says the world in which the characters in a novel live has to be made to seem real. She writes: ‘We (the readers) need to breathe their air, see with their eyes, walk the paths they tread and inhabit the rooms the writer has furnished for them.’

She also believes it’s important for the setting to be seen through the eyes of one of the characters, not merely described by the author, and that setting can establish the mood of a novel, citing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles as an example.

P D James writes: ‘We only have to think of …that dark and sinister mansion, set in the middle of the fog-shrouded moor, to appreciate how important setting can be to the establishment of atmosphere. The Hound of Wimbledon Common would hardly provide such a frisson of terror.’

She was inspired to write her novel, Devices and Desires, (1989), one of her 14 novels featuring the detective Adam Dalgliesh, while on a visit of exploration in East Anglia, when she was standing on a deserted shingle beach one day.

She writes: ‘There were a few wooden boats drawn up on the beach, a couple of brown nets slung between poles and drying in the wind and, looking out over the sullen and dangerous North Sea, I could imagine myself standing in the same place hundreds of years ago with the taste of salt on my lips and the constant hiss and withdrawing rattle of the tide. Then, turning my eyes to the south, I saw the great outline of Sizewell nuclear power station and immediately I knew that I had found the setting for my next novel.’

PD James says she was excited because she knew that however long the writing took she would eventually have a novel.

She began her research by visiting nuclear power stations and speaking to the scientists to find out how nuclear power stations are run.

Bergamo's historical upper town
I took the advice PD James gave me when I met her in the 1990s, but it was not until many years after I had interviewed her that I wrote my first novel, Death in the High City, having been inspired by the magical city of Bergamo in northern Italy.

PD James wrote her book, Talking about Detective Fiction, at the request of the Bodleian publishing department. She says she was invited by the Librarian to write a book in aid of the Library on the subject of British detective fiction, because it is a form of popular literature that had for over 50 years fascinated her and engaged her as a writer.

At the beginning she describes how the genre started in the 19th century, pinpointing The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins as the first English detective story. She then discusses the contributions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with his character, Sherlock Holmes, and G K Chesterton, with his amateur sleuth, Father Brown.

The work of the four Queens of Crime – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh is evaluated along with that of other Golden Age writers. She then casts her eye over the American PI offshoot from the genre and the modern developments British writers have now introduced.

Perhaps the most helpful to aspiring crime writers are the final three chapters of this fascinating little book, where P D James deals with setting, viewpoint and character.

Looking into the future, she predicts that many people will continue to turn to the detective story for ‘relief, entertainment and mild intellectual challenge.’

PD James published her final Adam Dalgliesh novel, The Private Patient, in 2008.

Talking about Detective Fiction was published by Bodleian Library in 2009.

PD James died in November 2014 in Oxford.

Talking about Detective Fiction is available from or

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20210309

The Haunted Hotel

Is this a ghost story or is it a crime novel?

My 2015 edition of The Haunted  Hotel, first published in 1878
My 2015 edition of The Haunted 
Hotel
, first published in 1878
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, published in 1868, has been talked of as the first English detective novel as it established many of the ground rules of the modern genre. There is a detective, Sergeant Cuff, a country house setting, false suspects and a final twist in the plot.

Wilkie Collins wrote The Haunted Hotel ten years after The Moonstone was published. I was delighted recently when I received a copy of The Haunted Hotel as a present because I wondered how closely it would resemble a detective story, which is my favourite genre. I was also intrigued because a lot of the story takes place in Venice, a city that I love.

Collins was known for writing sensation novels, or sensation fiction, which was at the peak of its popularity in the 1860s and 1870s. His novel, The Woman in White, published in 1860, is one of the finest examples of sensation fiction, so called because it was written to play on the nerves and excite the senses of the reader.

In The Haunted Hotel, Collins makes the reader think he is going to write a novel that deals with the supernatural, as very early in the book questions are raised about being able to predict the future and being able to sense evil in a room.

The story begins with a London doctor being visited by a foreign Countess who is desperate for him to tell her whether she is evil, or insane. She is about to marry a nobleman, Lord Montbarry, but has discovered that he was engaged to another woman when he proposed to her, who has subsequently released him from the engagement.

The Countess says she has been assured the other woman did not blame her for the break-up of her relationship with Lord Montbarry and that the true course of events had been explained to her. But she says that when she eventually met his former fiancĂ©e and saw the other woman’s eyes upon her she turned ‘cold from head to foot’ and experienced great fear.

Wilkie Collins is best known for his 1859 novel The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins is best known for
his 1859 novel The Woman in White
After the marriage has taken place and the couple are away on their honeymoon, the story is told from the point of view of the jilted woman, Agnes, who is perceived by all her friends as a kind, loving, good person.

Mrs Ferrari, a woman Agnes has known since childhood, then comes to her for help. She is married to an Italian courier who desperately needs work. She asks Agnes to recommend her husband to a newly married couple who are about to tour Italy. When Agnes discovers the couple are Lord and Lady Montbarry, she is reluctant to intervene, but out of sympathy for the woman she eventually agrees that the courier can mention her name to help him secure the job.

Mr Ferrari accompanies the newlyweds to Italy while Agnes goes to stay with friends in Ireland.

On her return to London she receives the news from Mrs Ferrari that the courier’s letters have stopped coming and that no one has seen or heard of him for weeks.

Then Mrs Ferrari receives a bizarre letter. It contains a £1000 note and a piece of paper with the words: ‘To console you for the loss of your husband.’

A few days later, Lord Montbarry’s brother, Henry Westwick, calls to see Agnes to break the news to her that Lord Montbarry has died of bronchitis in the Venetian palazzo where he had been staying.

Collins makes it seem inevitable that all the protagonists will meet again in Venice at some stage in the future. The palace where Lord Montbarry died is converted into an hotel and his brother, Henry, buys shares in it.

Later, friends of Agnes invite her on a trip to Italy with them and plan to visit Venice.

Henry’s sister and brother both separately visit the newly converted hotel that their brother has invested in and feel ill after staying in the best room, number 14, where they smell a foul odour. It turns out to be the room where Lord Montbarry died.

Events conspire to have Agnes allocated to that room when she arrives at the hotel with her party. The sinister Countess, who also happens to have returned to Venice is staying at the Hotel Danieli, but when she discovers that Agnes is staying at the newly converted palace she moves into the hotel.

Agnes then endures a night of horror in the room where Lord Montbarry died. At this point I am still wondering if this is a ghost story, or a tale about the supernatural.

There is no detective in the novel, but Lord Montbarry’s brother, Henry Westwick, sets out to find out what has taken place. He makes a discovery in the room above room number 14 that helps lead him to the truth.

A portrait of Wilkie Collins by John Everett Millais
A portrait of Wilkie Collins by
John Everett Millais
This is the room in the old palace that had been occupied by Baron Rivar, the brother of the Countess, who had enjoyed making chemical experiments.

The sinister Countess has died during the night of a ruptured blood vessel in the brain, but she leaves an unfinished play that provides Henry with clues to the fate of the missing Italian courier.

My conclusion is that Wilkie Collins did write a crime story after all. There was the sudden death of Lord Montbarry, whose life was insured for £10000 pounds in favour of his widow, the sinister Countess. The insurance company investigates the death but can find nothing to suggest it was not natural causes. The Italian courier disappears mysteriously. The amateur detective, Henry Westwick, discovers the truth when he visits the room above number 14 and reads a half finished play by the Countess, which helps him finally discover what happened to his brother..

The Haunted Hotel has many of the ingredients of a crime novel and the truth is not revealed until the end of the novel in the tradition of the genre. I can definitely recommend it to crime fiction fans.

The Haunted Hotel is available from and

(The Millais portrait of Wilkie Collins hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London)


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20210304

Mystery Mile

Sinister goings on in a remote country house on the Suffolk coast

The gentleman sleuth Albert Campion takes centre stage in Mystery Mile, the second novel by Margery Allingham to feature him as a character, which was first published in 1930.

Campion appeared in The Crime at Black Dudley, published in 1929, as a minor character, although he played his part, along with the other young guests at the country house party, when the host’s uncle is found dead and a sinister gang of criminals take over the building and hold them hostage.

The edition reissued by Vintage in 2015
But he is involved in the action right from the beginning in Mystery Mile by saving the life of an American judge on board a luxury liner crossing the Atlantic, seemingly by accident.

The judge, Crowdy Lobbett, is being targeted by a major criminal, known as Simister, and his ruthless associates. Several people in the judge’s circle have already died before he boards the ship with his son and daughter to flee to England where he hopes to be safer.

But after a car drives into the hotel where Judge Lobbett is staying in London, his son, Marlowe, tracks down Campion to ask for his help.

Campion offers the family sanctuary at a remote country house owned by two of his friends, a brother and sister, Giles and Biddy Paget.

The house is in Mystery Mile, a small village on the Suffolk coast, which is joined to the mainland only by a long narrow road, making it almost an island and difficult for non residents to access.

But on their first night in the house the local rector kills himself in a gruesome manner, leaving a note and some mysterious clues for Campion and his friends.

Then the judge vanishes while exploring the maze in the garden and his clothes are later found in the sea. And Biddy disappears after leaving the house to walk the few yards to the village post office.

After being tipped off by a criminal friend of Campion’s that she is being held in a house in London, the young men in the party launch a daring rescue bid.

There is plenty of fighting and some nasty injuries, but they manage to rescue Biddy. It then becomes a race against time to keep Simister and his gang of men at bay until they can pinpoint the identity of the criminal mastermind himself and deal with him once and for all.

Peter Davison (right) played Campion in the BBC TV series, with Brian Glover (left) as Lugg
Peter Davison (right) played Campion in the
BBC TV series, with Brian Glover (left) as Lugg
Very much a book of its time, Mystery Mile reminded me a little of Agatha Christie’s second novel, The Secret Adversary, which was published in 1922.

Margery, like Agatha, was dubbed a Queen of Crime during the Golden Age of detective fiction. Her first two novels both fall more into the suspense category than that of the cosy English crime novel. But she never loses sight of the basic rules of the classic detective story and keeps the reader guessing right to the end.

Margery’s setting for the old manor house, Mystery Mile, a village that is practically an island, was based on Mersea Island in Essex where she had spent time in her youth.

The story was adapted for television by the BBC in the 1990s, as the final episode of the second series of Campion, which starred Peter Davison as Albert Campion, Brian Glover as his manservant Magersfontein Lugg and Andrew Burt as his policeman friend Stanislaus Oates.

The novel was reissued in 2015 by Vintage, which is part of the Penguin Random House Group.

Although it is nearly 100 years since Mystery Mile was written I think it is a gripping story and well worth reading.

Mystery Mile is available in a variety of formats from or


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