E.C. Bentley's books first came to my attention through the letters of Dorothy L. Sayers. She wrote him a very complimentary letter in 1936 after reading this book, his second featuring the amateur detective Philip Trent. What really surprised me was to read "I am always ashamed to admit how much my poor Peter owes to Trent, besides his habit of quotation." That set me off to find his first Trent book, Trent's Last Case, published in 1913. I read later that it is considered the first modern mystery novel. Agatha Christie said that it was "one of the three best detective stories ever written." Sayers wrote that "Every detective writer of today owes something, consciously or unconsciously, to its liberating and inspiring influence." Bentley supposedly wrote it on a bet with G.K. Chesterton, to show a detective getting every single thing wrong.
I admit, I had pretty high expectations when I started the first book, and it didn't quite live up to them. I probably need to read it again one of these days. Though I wasn't thrilled with it, I still picked up a copy of the second book, Trent's Own Case, when I came across it. I read it over the weekend, though more than once I was tempted to give up on it. It reads like a typical Golden Age mystery. James Randolph's valet discovers him dead in the bedroom of his small mews house. He was shot in the back just as he was pulling off his jacket. The police find crumpled brown wrapping paper and cut string lying on the floor, near a safe set into the wall. Philip Trent, an artist who has retired from amateur sleuthing, visited Randolph earlier in the evening, to discuss Randolph's unwelcome interest in Eunice Faviell, an actress friend of Trent and his aunt Julia. But the police, led by Chief Inspector Gideon Bligh, discover signs of another visitor: a luggage tag with the name of Bryan Fairman, a psychiatrist on staff at a hospital Randolph funds. The tag shows that Fairman was to travel to Dieppe on the night-boat. Bligh sends instructions to track Fairman, who is caught just as he prepares to commit suicide by jumping off the boat. Meanwhile, a letter he wrote confessing to the murder is on its way to the police. Fairman is arrested, but neither Trent nor his friend Bligh is quite satisfied with the case. There is a missing heir, a missing gun, a missing will, and whatever was wrapped in that brown paper is also missing. With Bligh's blessing Trent takes on much of the investigation (to the point that I wondered what Bligh and his team were actually doing to solve the case).
I thought the mystery was interesting enough, with a twisty plot and an ending that I only guessed just before the murderer was caught. I did want to find out who killed James Randolph, which kept me reading. But the denouement was a long time coming, and I found my attention wandering more than once. This was an easy book to put down, even mid-chapter. As with many Golden Age mysteries, there was a tendency to introduce clues but not to explain their significance - and to withhold information from the police, which always irritates me. And while Dorothy Sayers may have taken Trent as a model for Peter Wimsey, his quotations and piffle felt a bit forced to me, nowhere near as entertaining as Peter or Psmith waffling on.
There is also a book of short stories featuring Trent, but I think I'll pass on those.