Clerihews And Clues

Reading & Writing

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

            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 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.

19 comments on “Clerihews And Clues”

  1. Ian Luck says:

    I always like those old police movie titles, which were along the lines of: ‘Detective Winker’s First Case’; ‘A Clue For Detective Winker’; ‘Winker Sees It Through’; ‘Winker And The Strange Affair Of The Smoke-Filled Bicycle Shed’; Winker And The Mystery Of The Monoped Flautist’; Winker And The Curse Of The Treadmill Mussolinis’; ‘Winker And The Pub Car Park Range War’ ; ‘Winker Is Offered Outside’; ‘Winker And The Watercolour Deathmatch’; and finally, ‘Winker Pisses Off To St. Leonard’s To Live With His Sister Dolly’. My favourite thing of this type is to be found in the ‘Rutland Weekend Television’ book, by Eric Idle. A section of this very, very funny book features biographies of the ‘Stars’ of RWTV. One of which is an actor who plays a character called ‘Inspector Dull’, who appeared in ‘Dull’s First Case’, ‘Dull’s Second Case’, and ‘Dull Is Shot Through The Head, And Retires Forever’. Rutland Weekend TV also featured a show called ‘Rutland 5-0’ featuring buddy cops Muttsky and Jeffovitch. The credits for this ‘show’ reveal the producer to be somebody called ‘Al Foresoreskin’… RWTV was a very funny show, created by Eric Idle and Neil Innes. It, of course, begat the brilliant Beatles’ pastiche band, The Rutles, Dirk, Barry, Stig, and Nasty, the ‘Pre-Fab Four’. How good were they? Well, on one occasion, Neil Innes played a demo of a new tune to Paul McCartney, whose response was: “A bit too close, there, lads…”

  2. Peter Tromans says:

    How could the two in the open top car not lose their hats? The miracle of cinema!

  3. Wayne Mook says:

    Heads were bigger in those days.

    Phill Jupitus was doing some Clerihews on 9 Out of 10 Cats does Countdown, which is better than 9 Out of 10 Cats. fairly amusing they were. I know that name EC Bentley from somewhere else but can’t place it. The Man Who Was Thursday I did rather enjoy, there a nice radio version too.

    I’ve just come across Eudora Welty, I really don’t know much about her work, I’ve not really seen it here in the UK. I’ve picked up a cheap copy of The Golden Apples, is this a good place to start? Is she an author you would recommend? Any comments welcome.


  4. Ian Luck says:

    The only Clerihew I know, is:

    ‘Sir Christopher Wren
    Had lunch with some men.
    He said: “If anyone calls –
    I’m designing St. Paul’s”.’

    I still prefer Limericks, myself.
    My favourite of which is:

    A canner, exceedingly canny,
    Once remarked to his granny:
    “A canner can can anything he can
    But a canner can’t can a can,
    Can he?”


  5. kevin says:

    Hi Wayne,

    Eudora Welty is a well-known, beloved even, female southern writer here in the US. She’s usually taught along side the other well known female southern writer Flannery O’Connor. I love them both, although I’m only familiar with Welty’s short stories. I’ve somehow never managed to read any of her novels. I need to correct that. The ability of both these women to capture southern US life in the early part of the twentieth century in all its complexity is amazing. Both had wicked senses of humor, although I think O’Connor was a bit darker. Two of my favorite stories by Welty are “Why I Live at the P.O.” and “Where is the Voice Coming” a chilling story about the murder of US civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    A Limerick from the great John Cooper Clarke:

    Two ugly sisters from Fordham
    Went on a walk out of boredom
    On the way back, a sex maniac
    Jumped out of a hedge
    And ignored ’em.

  7. Denise Treadwell says:

    I think if a hat fits correctly it does not blow off!

  8. Roger says:

    More challenging that clerihews or limericks are double-dactyls:

  9. David Ronaldson says:

    Mr Christopher Fowler

    Is a literary prowler

    Both fact and faction in his bag

    With the peculiar hashtag

  10. Ian Luck says:

    Denise – you are quite correct. If a hat fits properly, it doesn’t blow off. I’m a fan of ‘proper’ hats, and often wear a grey trilby (not a Fedora, that’s a totally different thing) to work on my bicycle. Not once has it come anywhere near blowing away, even in the slipstream of other traffic. The Coke (Bowler, if you must), and Homburg, I own, have stayed on in strong winds, as have the Diamond-crown and Telescope-crown Pork Pie hats I like to wear. I do have a nice felt Fedora, but as the brim is wide and soft, it’s not the best in a wind. The brim of a ‘Snap brim’ Fedora is stiffer, and so, stays in place.

  11. David Ronaldson says:


  12. admin says:

    Thanks for the clerihew. I love how these comments centre around the ability of keeping a hat on in a car!

  13. Peter Tromans says:

    I favour Gatsby caps and Fedoras and don’t risk losing them in high winds or roadsters. That’s when the wolly ski hat comes out – also for running in the winter.

  14. Peter Tromans says:

    Oops wolly or wooly, a Freudian slip?

    I asked Dr Freud.
    He said ‘Your psyche’s destroyed
    By the loss of fedora
    To the winds of hurricane Laura.’

    I learnt poetry not from Rupert Brooke, but from a Rupert book. It may all rhyme, yet it’s a literary crime

  15. Wayne Mook says:

    Thanks for the comments Kevin, I have put the Eudora Welty near the top of the to read pile, and will keep an eye out for the O’Connor books, I intend to go to town and hit a few book shops, or tickle them if they’re nice, tomorrow.


  16. chazza says:

    That’s why you never see religious jews in roadsters. Those wearing skullcaps are also a rare sight unless nailed to their heads a la Vlad the Impaler…

  17. Denise Treadwell says:

    Actually you are wrong, looking for the books .

  18. Wayne Mook says:

    Hello Denise,

    That’s an enigmatic statement, should I not go looking for a Flannery O’Connor books or are you referring to something else in the thread?

    I’ve not been able to go shopping for books today. I’ve pulled a calf muscle, I turned over in bed & woke up in pain at 5.30 this morning, it’s still sore but should be Ok soon. Whoever said age is just a number didn’t have to spend time in this crumbling relic. My eyesight is finally starting to go too, goodbye small print and at this rate I’m going to need longer arms. Don’t worry I’ve been a good boy and I have booked an appointment at the optician’s shop, free check up courtesy of work.

    The muscle problem has not stopped me getting a book, in the post a copy of Keith Waterhouse’s Daily Mirror Style arrived (an Adim recommendation.), which reminds me, I know plenty about Billy Liar but I’ve not sat down and read it, what a splendid opening line, ‘Lying in bed, I abandoned the facts again and was back in Ambrosia.’



  19. Helen Martin says:

    Yet another illusion destroyed: I thought Flannery O’Connor was a man.
    I used to have hair down to my waist and securing a hat was a simple matter of sticking a hat pin in. Kids who haven’t grown up with hats or hat pins can be wonderfully impressed by the pin “going right through.” There are still people among my acquaintance who refer to me as “the hat lady” (better than the bag lady, I suppose.)

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