|1||Trent's Last Case||1913|
|2||Trent's Own Case||1936|
Philip Trent is as an unlikely detective as ever to be met. He is a scruffy, dishevelled, albeit handsome artist who drifts into journalism and in ‘Trent’s Last Case’ is asked by the editor of one newspaper to investigate the death of a millionaire. His methods are a touch haphazard, and twice in what is his most famous case he identifies the wrong person as the culprit, whilst actually falling in love with someone who turns out to be the chief suspect. He is self-deprecating and constantly joking and fooling around – the very opposite of most ‘Golden Age Detectives’, which in fact was what E.C. Bentley aimed for. Philip Trent is human, flawed, and more to the point, recognises this in himself without any real concern.
Bentley wrote of Philip Trent:
…… 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 ......
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:
TRENT : 'Martin is a great creature. He is far, far better than a play. There is none like him, none. Straight, too; not an atom of harm in dear old Martin. Do you know, Murch, you are wrong in suspecting that man'.
MURCH: 'I never said anything about suspecting him. Still, there's no point in denying it—I have got my eye on him. He's such a very cool customer. You remember the case of Lord William Russell's valet, who went in as usual in the morning, as quiet and starchy as you please, to draw up the blinds in his master's bedroom a few hours after he had murdered him in his bed. But, of course, Martin doesn't know I've got him in mind.'
TRENT: 'No; he wouldn't. He is a wonderful creature, a great artist; but in spite of that, he is not at all a sensitive type. It has never occurred to his mind that you could suspect him. But I could see it. You must understand, Inspector, that I have made a special study of the psychology of officers of the law. It's a grossly neglected branch of knowledge. They are far more interesting than criminals, and not nearly so easy. All the time we were questioning him I saw handcuffs in your eye. Your lips were mutely framing the syllables of those tremendous words: "It is my duty to tell you that anything you now say may be taken down and used in evidence at your trial."'
That is a fair specimen of Trent, and I found that people seemed to like it for a change.