I FEEL a little embarrassment in writing about the character of Philip Trent, because the poor fellow has made his appearance in only one single book. But it is a book which, I am glad to say, has had on extensive sale for many years past. I don't say this out of boastfulness at all, but simply because it
is my only excuse for holding forth on this occasion. The story called Trent's Last Case was published in 1913. That is a long time ago. It takes us back to a day when the detective story was a very different thing from what it is now. I am not sure why Sherlock Holmes and his earlier imitators could never be .at all amusing or light-hearted; but it may have been because they felt that they had a mission, and had to sustain a position of superiority to the ordinary run of mankind. Trent does not feel about himself in that way at all, as a short passage of dialogue from the book may indicate. The story is concerned with the murdering of a millionaire at his country place in Devonshire—one of the earliest of a long, long line of murdered millionaires. Trent
makes his appearance at a country hotel near the scene of the crime; and there, to his surprise, he finds an old gentleman whom he knows well— Mr. Cupples his name is—just finishing an open-air breakfast on the verandah. Trent gets out of his car and comes up the steps.|
One of the most hackneyed of quotations is that from Boswell's Life of Johnson, about the man who said he had tried being a philosopher but found that cheerfulness would keep breaking in, Philip Trent has the same trouble about being a detective. He is apt to give way to frivolity and the throwing about of absurd quotations from the poets at almost any moment. There was nothing like that about the older, sterner school of fiction detectives. They never laughed, and only rarely and with difficulty did they smile. They never read anything but the crime reports in the papers, and if they ever quoted, it was from nothing but their own pamphlets on the importance of collar-studs in the detection of crime, or the use of the banana-skin as an instrument of homicide. They were not by any means blind to their own abilities or importance. Holmes, for instance, would say when speaking of his tracking down of Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of crime, such words as these:
"You know my powers, my dear Watson, but I am forced to confess that I have at last met an antagonist who is my intellectual equal." Or, again, Holmes says, when he is facing the prospect of losing his life: "If my record were closed to-night, I could still survey it with equanimity. The air of London is the sweeter for my presence. In over a thousand cases I am not aware that I have ever used my powers on the wrong side."
If I used to feel, as probably very many others used to feel, that a change from that style might not be a bad thing, it was certainly not in any spirit of undervaluing that marvellous creation of Conan Doyle's. My own belief is that the adventures of Sherlock Holmes are likely to be read at least as long as anything else that was written in their time, because they are great stories, the work of a powerful and vivid imagination. And I should add this: that all detective stories written since Holmes was created, including my own story, have been founded more or less on that remarkable body of work. Holmes would often say, "You know my methods, Watson." Well, we all got to know his methods; and we all followed those methods, so far as the business of detection went.
The attempt to introduce a more modern sort of character-drawing into that business was altogether another thing. It has brought into existence a rich variety of types of detective hero, as this series of talks is showing. My own attempt was among the very earliest; and I realize now, as I hardly did at the time, that the idea at the bottom of it was to get as far away from the Holmes tradition as possible. Trent, as I have said, does not take himself at all seriously. He is not a scientific expert; he is not a professional crime investigator. He is an artist, a painter, by calling, who has strayed accidentally into the business of crime journalism because he found he had an aptitude for it, and without any sense of having a mission. He is not superior to the feelings of average humanity; he does not stand aloof from mankind, but enjoys the society of his fellow creatures and makes friends with everybody. He even goes so far as to fall in love. He does not regard the Scotland Yard men as a set of bungling half-wits, but has the highest respect for their trained abilities. All very unlike Holmes.
Trent's attitude towards the police is frankly one of sporting competition with opponents who are quite as likely to beat him as he is to beat them. I will introduce here another scrap of dialogue from Trent's Last Case that illustrates this. Trent and Chief-Inspector Murch have just been hearing the story of Martin, the very correct butler in the service of the man who had been murdered on the previous day. Martin has just bowed himself impressively out of the room, and Trent falls into an arm-chair and draws a long breath.
That is a fair specimen of Trent, and I found that people seemed to like it for a change. I found another thing: that the building up of a satisfactory mystery story was a very much more difficult affair than I had ever imagined. I had undertaken the writing of a detective story with a light heart. It came of a suggestion—I might call it a challenge—offered by my old friend, G. K. Chesterton, and I did not suppose it would be a very formidable undertaking. But I did not realize what it was that I had set my hand to. Once the plot was started it began to grow. It got completely out of hand. It ought to have ended at a point a little more than half-way through the book as it stands. But not at all; the story wouldn't have that. It insisted upon carrying the thing to a conclusion entirely different from the quite satisfactory one, as I thought, reached in Chapter XI; and then it had to go on to still another at the very end, in Chapter XVI.
So, being then engaged in earning my living by other means, I formed the opinion that writing detective stories was not, so far as I was concerned, an ideal way of occupying one's spare time. And that is why the novel was called Trent's Last Case.
Text © 1935 EC Bentley-Allen & Unwin Layout © 2004 R.D. Collins
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