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Bentley, EC

Page history last edited by Jon 14 years, 3 months ago

EC BentleyEdmund Clerihew Bentley (July 10, 1875 – March 30, 1956), was a popular English novelist and humorist of the early twentieth century, and the inventor of the clerihew, an irregular form of humorous verse on biographical topics.


Born in London, the son of a civil servant, Bentley went to Oxford, where he was president of the Debating Society. Leaving Oxford in 1902, he worked as a journalist on several newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph, while contributing humorous pieces to Punch and other papers. His first published collection of poetry, titled Biography for Beginners (1905), popularized the clerihew form; it was followed by two other collections, in 1929 and 1939. His detective novel, Trent's Last Case (1913), was much praised, numbering Dorothy L. Sayers among its admirers, and with its labyrinthine and mystifying plotting can be seen as the first truly modern mystery.


The success of the work inspired him, after 23 years, to write a sequel, Trent's Own Case (1936) (with H Warner Allen), and to produce a book of Trent short stories, Trent Intervenes. Several of his books have recently been reprinted by House of Stratus. Bentley's son Nicolas, an illustrator, has also written crime fiction. Bentley was a friend of Chesterton.


Trent's Last Case is available through Project Gutenberg.


Mike Grost on EC Bentley


EC Bentley was a British newspaperman. He only wrote four mystery books, but he was immensely influential and prestigious in his time. His reputation peaked around 1940, when first Dorothy L. Sayers, and then Howard Haycraft, identified his Trent's Last Case as the start of the modern mystery novel. Haycraft was particularly impressed with Bentley's naturalism, a low key approach that excluded melodrama. Sayers admired the many cultural references in Bentley, and what she regarded as his fine writing. Both critics were also impressed with Bentley's characterization. They felt Bentley brought new realism, craftsmanship and believability to the detective novel, which they asserted had been largely dominated by melodrama and purple prose before Bentley's time.


Evaluating Bentley's claim to be the Father of the Golden Age Mystery Novel is difficult today. Bentley's contemporary, R. Austin Freeman, was also writing Golden Age style novels in this period, such as the classic The Eye of Osiris (1911). Dozens of mystery novels were published in the 1910's; I have read only a few, and do not yet have a clear understanding of this era.


Without really being a full member of the Realist school, Bentley was a strong influence on them. Many of Bentley's mysteries focus on alibis. He was a pioneer of the "breakdown of identity" approach used by the school to create fake alibis: see the article on realist detective fiction for a discussion of this technique. So his mysteries are very close to the realist school in their plot and detective technique. He was also an early exponent of the cultural tone loved by Dorothy L. Sayers. By contrast, there are differences in content between Bentley and most realists. His stories do not tend to have a "background", an inside look at some business or institution. His hero is a reporter, not a policeman. Only occasionally does science play a role in the tales. In short, while his tales anticipate the form of the realists, he differs from them in content. Bentley's content, and his naturalistic style, seem closer to Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and other Golden Age authors of British country house mysteries, and he was probably a direct influence on these writers.




Trent's Last Case (1913)

Trent's Own Case (1936)

Trent Intervenes (1938)

Elephant's Work (1950)


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