Bentley, E(dmund) Clerihew 1875-1956

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BENTLEY, E(dmund) Clerihew 1875-1956

(E. C. Bentley, Edmund Clerihew)

PERSONAL: Born July 10, 1875, in Shepherd's Bush, England; died March 30, 1956; son of John Edmund (a barrister in the Lord Chancellor's Department) and Margaret Richardson (Clerihew) Bentley; married Violet Alice Mary Boileu, 1902; children: Neil, Betty, Nicholas. Education: Merton College, Oxford, graduated (history), 1898; studied law in London.

CAREER: Writer, journalist, and barrister. Called to the Inner Temple Bar, 1902; Daily News, London, England, began as editorial columnist, became deputy editor, 1902-12; Daily Telegraph, London, England, foreign affairs editor, 1912-34, chief literary critic, 1939-47.


(Under pseudonym Edmund Clerihew) Biography for Beginners, Laurie (London, England), 1905, published under name Edmund Clerihew Bentley, 1925.

The Woman in Black, Century (New York, NY), 1913, published under name E. C. Bentley as Trent's Last Case, Grosset & Dunlap (New York, NY), 1913, revised edition, Knopf (New York, NY), 1929, reprinted, Dover Publications (Mineola, NY), 1997.

More Biography, Methuen (London, England), 1929.

(Under name E. C. Bentley) Peace Year in the City, 1918-1919: An Account of the Outstanding Events in the City of London during the Peace Year, [London, England], 1929.

(Under name E. C. Bentley; with H. Warner Allen) Trent's Own Case, Knopf (New York, NY), 1936.

(Under name E. C. Bentley; with others) Parody Party, edited by Leonard Russell, illustrated by Nicolas Bentley, Hutchinson (London, England), 1936, reprinted, Kennikat Press (Port Washington, NY), 1970.

(Under name E. C. Bentley) Trent Intervenes, Knopf (New York, NY), 1938, reprinted, Dover Publications (Mineola, NY), 1981.

(Under name E. C. Bentley) Baseless Biography, Constable (London, England), 1939.

(Under name E. C. Bentley) Those Days (autobiography), Constable (London, England), 1940.

(Under name E. C. Bentley) Elephant's Work: An Enigma, Knopf (New York, NY), 1950.

(Under name E. C. Bentley) Far Horizon: A Biography of Hester Dowden, Medium and Psychic Investigator, Rider (New York, NY), 1951.

(Under name E. C. Bentley; and illustrator with Nicolas Bentley, G. K. Chesterton, and Victor Reinganum) Clerihews Complete, Laurie (London, England), 1951, published as The Complete Clerihews of E. Clerihew Bentley, introduction by Gavin Ewart, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1981.

(Under name E. C. Bentley) Trent's Case Book (contains Trent's Last Case, Trent's Own Case, and Trent Intervenes), Knopf (New York, NY), 1953.

(With G. K. Chesterton and others) The First Clerihews, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1982.

(Under name E. C. Bentley; with Dorothy L. Sayers and others) The Scoop and Behind the Screen, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1983.

Contributor, under name E. C. Bentley, to To the Queen's Taste, edited by Ellery Queen, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1946, and to periodicals such as Punch, Fortnightly Review, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and Speaker.

editor, under name e. c. bentley:

Damon Runyon, More than Somewhat, Constable (London, England), 1937.

Damon Runyon, The Best of Runyon, Constable (London, England), 1938.

Damon Runyon, Damon Runyon Presents Furthermore, Constable (London, England), 1938.

The Second Century of Detective Stories, Hutchinson (London, England), 1938.

SIDELIGHTS: Author, journalist, and poet E. Clerihew Bentley left an unmistakable mark on two distinct genres of writing. Often publishing under the name E. C. Bentley, he contributed landmark works to humorous poetry by his invention of the whimsical form called the clerihew, and to classic detective fiction with his watershed novel Trent's Last Case.

At age sixteen, while still a student at St. Paul's School, Bentley wrote his first "clerihew," an original verse form coined from his middle name and his mother's maiden name. This new poetic form was described as "a four-line mock 'biography' whose effect depends on the way its improbable rhymes and trivial details satirize the pretensions of the public figure whose name gives each poem its opening line," by a contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers. The first clerihew, many critics agree, has remained unchallenged as the best: "Sir Humphry Davy/Abominated gravy/He lived in the odium/Of having discovered sodium."

Israel Shenker, writing in the New Yorker, quoted Bentley as saying the first clerihew was written almost in a trance as he endured droning lessons at school. "The pen was in my hand. Musing, I hardly knew what it was tracing on the page. Then, with a start, I saw that I had written" the first clerihew. "This truant writing … was the trace that launched a thousand quips—a new form of poetry to be ennobled in the verse kingdom along such peers of the realm as the Spenserian sonnet, the Pindaric ode, and the robust dithyramb," Shenker commented.

In 1905 Bentley gathered his works into the collection Biography for Beginners, and eventually published three more collections of the jaunty little life-sketches. "Good clerihews have been written since [Bentley's] day, but the inspired lighthearted silliness and unlikeliness of the originals are not easily come by," remarked Gavin Ewart in the introduction to The Complete Clerihews of E. Clerihew Bentley.

Trent's Last Case originated in Bentley's idea in 1910 that "it would be a good idea to write a detective story of a new sort," as he related in his autobiography, Those Days. "Enthusiastic in his admiration for Sherlock Holmes, Bentley nonetheless bridled at Holmes's stylized unreality and self-seriousness and so determined 'to write a detective story in which the detective was recognizable as a human being, '" and much less of an infallible sleuth who always arrived at the correct answers in the proper amount of time, noted a writer in Dictionary of Literary Biography. "If Conan Doyle had created in Holmes the detective as superman, approachable only through the audience surrogate Dr. Watson, Bentley recreated the detective as Everyman, himself a surrogate for a cultivated and literate audience," the Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor observed.

Originally written and submitted to a literary contest, Bentley withdrew the book when he learned that a detective novel might sell for considerably more than the contest prize money. The work was published in 1913 under its original title, The Woman in Black, but the British edition immortalized the title the book has become best known by: Trent's Last Case.

With Trent's Last Cast, Bentley "disregarded or ironically reversed many of the conventions commonly associated with the detective genre, such as the infallibility of the detective and the ultimate triumph of reason," wrote a contributor to Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Trent's carefully reasoned solution to Manderson's murder turns out to be completely wrong; he falls in love with a chief suspect; and he initially gives up on the case before it is solved. Bentley's convention-defying approach "also introduced an element of wit and realism into mystery fiction that it had previously lacked. Bentley's iconoclastic approach to his subject matter in Trent's Last Case paved the way for a new type of mystery novel," the Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism writer concluded.

At the beginning of Trent's Last Case, malevolent American financier Sigsbee Manderson is dead, and the world's financial markets are sent into chaos at the news. Amateur detective and uncomfortable newspaper reporter Philip Trent arrives at Manderson's estate to look into the matter. Trent learns from Nathaniel Cupples, an old friend who is also Mrs. Mabel Manderson's uncle, that Sigsbee Manderson was detested by almost all who knew him, and in particular by his British secretary John Marlowe, his American secretary Calvin Bunner, and his new widow, Mabel, who exults at his death. Trent observes a number of peculiarities about Manderson's body and seeks clues left on clothing and objects in the room. When Trent suggests that it might have been an affair between Mabel and Marlowe that contributed to Manderson's demise, Mabel reacts poorly, and Trent subsequently withdraws from the case. A year later, however, he meets Mabel Manderson again. Realizing he has fallen in love with her, he proposes marriage, and she accepts. Trent reopens the case "with results that have astonished readers ever since nearly as much as the detective himself," wrote the Mystery and Suspense Writers contributor. "When the solution to the mystery is finally revealed, not by his own painstaking investigations, but by the genial, apparently inconsequential Cupples," Trent vows that the Manderson murder will be his last case.

In Those Days, Bentley remarked that "it does not seem to have been generally noticed that Trent's LastCase is not so much a detective story as an exposure of detective stories." And, as the Mystery and Suspense Writers contributor noted, "Bentley's legacy rests not on the relatively derivative and unconvincing work of his later years, but on the singular achievement of Trent's Last Case. Ironically, his effect on the detective genre was precisely the opposite of what he had expected. Not only had Bentley failed to write the detective novel to end all detective novels; he had established, in spite of himself, a tone and style, and a set of new conventions, that would give the form he was seeking to explode unprecedented new life."



Baker, Isidore Lewis, E. C. Bentley: "Trent's Last Case, " James Brodie, Ltd. (London, England), 1956.

Benstock, Bernard, and Thomas F. Staley, editors, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 70: British Mystery Writers, 1860-1919, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.

Bentley, E. C., Those Days (autobiography), Constable (London, England), 1940.

Bentley, E. C. Trent's Last Case, introduction by Ben Ray Redman, Knopf (New York, NY), 1952.

Bentley, E. Clerihew, The Complete Clerihews of E. Clerihew Bentley, introduction by Gavin Ewart, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1981.

Bentley, Nicolas, A Version of the Truth, Deutsch (London, England), 1960.

Halperin, John, editor, The Theory of the Novel, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1974.

Haycraft, Howard, Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, Appleton (New York, NY), 1941.

Henderson, Lesley, editor, Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Chicago, IL), 1991.

Magill, Frank N., editor, Critical Survey of Mystery and Detective Fiction, Salem Press (Pasadena, CA), 1988.

Murch, A. E., The Development of the Detective Novel, Philosophical Library, Inc., 1958.

Panek, LeRoy, Watteau's Shepherds: The Detective Novel in Britain, 1914-1940, Bowling Green University Popular Press (Bowling Green, OH), 1979.

Routley, Erik, The Puritan Pleasures of the Detective Story: A Personal Monograph, Gollancz (London, England), 1972.

Symons, Julian, Mortal Consequences: A History from Detective Story to Crime Novel, Harper (New York, NY), 1972.

Thomson, H. Douglas, Masters of Mystery: A Study of the Detective Story, Collins (London, England), 1931.

Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Volume 12, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.

Winks, Robin W., and Maureen Corrigan, Mystery and Suspense Writers, Charles Scribner's Sons (New York, NY), 1998.


Atlantic Monthly, December, 1944, Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder," pp. 53-59.

Boston Globe, January 12, 1986, Robert Taylor, "Bookmaking," p. B18.

G. K.'s Weekly, May 28, 1936, Charles Williams, review of Trent's Own Case, pp. 178-179.

Guardian (Manchester, England), May 13, 1993, "Centipede: Rhymes without Reason, the Cadences of the Clerihew Have Given Pleasure to Quite a Few"; November 23, 2002.

Kliatt, January, 2002, Janet Julian, review of Trent's Last Case, p. 48.

Nation, April 10, 1913, review of The Woman in Black, p. 361.

New Statesman and Nation, May 23, 1936, Ralph Partridge, review of Trent's Own Case, pp. 806-808.

New Yorker, April 25, 1983, Israel Shenker, "Clerihews," pp. 148, 151-152.

New York Times Book Review, December 15, 1963, Howard Haycraft, review of Trent's Last Case, pp. 18-19.

Opera News, April 2, 1994, Roger Du Bearn, "A Clutch of Clerihews," p. 20.

Spectator, March 8, 1913, review of Trent's Last Case, pp. 409-410; May 29, 1936, Nicholas Blake, review of Trent's Own Case, p. 992; August 19, 1938, Nicholas Blake, "A Dram of Poison," review of Trent Intervenes, pp. 312-313; June, 1950, A. A. Milne, review of Elephant's Work: An Enigma, p. 893.

Times Literary Supplement, July 23, 1938, "The Return of Philip Trent," review of Trent Intervenes, p. 495; April 22, 1977, Barbara Reynolds, "The Origins of Lord Peter Wimsey," p. 492.


Creative Quotations Web site, (July 21, 2004), "Creative Quotations from Edmund Clerihew Bentley."*

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Bentley, E(dmund) Clerihew 1875-1956

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