Invisible Ink: No 188 - EC Bentley


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The Independent Culture

Books are often dedicated to other writers. Recently this column looked at Edward Phillips Oppenheim, a dedicatee of P G Wodehouse. Here's another: G K Chesteron's novel about anarchist terrorism, The Man Who Was Thursday, is dedicated to E C Bentley, born in 1875. The pair had met as schoolboys at St Paul's and became fast friends. Bentley went to Oxford, but left law studies to become a journalist, in which profession he continued for most of his life.

Bentley's father had been a rugby union international, having played in the first match for England against Scotland in 1871. As a young man his son was equally dashing, but his leanings took him toward poetry. Edmund's middle name was Clerihew, and he invented the biographical poem that still bears that name. An example would be: "Sir Humphrey Davy/Abominated gravy./He lived in the odium/Of having discovered sodium". Bentley set out the classic rules for a clerihew, namely that it should have four lines, rhyming couplets of AABB, the subject's name as its opening line, something to say about that person, and that it should make you smile. They're harder to write than they look, as W H Auden discovered.

Bentley had grown up with the first outburst of public adoration of Sherlock Holmes. Growing weary of the sleuth's infallibility, he decided to pen his own murder mystery. What he wrote in 1913 was Trent's Last Case, which upset the applecart with its ironic approach and its labyrinthine, still mystifying plot. In this sense it can be seen as the first truly modern mystery, one which put the cap on the more earnest, melodramatic Conan Doyle era. Agatha Christie was strongly influenced by it, and regarded it as one of the three best detective novels yet written.

Much to its author's amazement, it was a huge international success and spawned three film versions, one starring Orson Welles. Bentley realised that the book had been taken at face value, as a sophisticated thriller with a twist ending. Around the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, his reputation peaked when Dorothy L Sayers named him as an influential writer who had introduced a more cultural and realistic approach to crime fiction.

He eventually wrote a fairly straightforward sequel, Trent's Own Case, in 1936, and a volume of short cases in Trent Intervenes. Bentley's output was slender, but had an impact. His son was the cartoonist Nicolas Bentley.