Clerihews And Clues
Books are often dedicated to other writers. GK Chesteron’s strange novel about anarchist terrorism, ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’, is dedicated to EC 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. A classic example would be;
Sir Humphrey Davy
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 AA, BB, a person’s name as its first line, something to say about that person, and that it should make you smile. They’re harder to write than they look, as WH Auden discovered when he produced some lousy ones.
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 rather 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.
It breaks several cardinal rules of the whodunit, having the detective fall in love with a suspect and then making him jump to the wrong conclusions. In this sense it operates as the first proper send-up of the genre. Agatha Christie was strongly influenced by it, and regarded it as one of the three best detective novels yet written, because it’s partly unknowable. The opening line of the book has become much quoted, even if the novel itself remains of specialist interest; ‘Between what matters and what seems to matter, how shall the world we know judge wisely…’
Much to its author’s amazement ‘Trent’s Last Case’ was a huge international success and spawned three film versions, one starring Orson Welles. Bentley realized that the book had been taken at face value, as a sophisticated thriller with a twist ending.
Around the time of the outbreak of WWII, 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 impactful. His son was the cartoonist Nicolas Bentley.