Monday, December 10, 2018

a thriller with serious bite: The Monsoon Ghost Image, by Tom Vater

Kindle Version,
October 2018
Crime Wave Press

I would like to thank Henry at Crime Wave Press for my copy of this book.    I didn't use it, because silly me, I failed to see the pdf file he'd included in the email he sent, so I bought a kindle version  But thanks all the same.
Aside from having a cool logo, Crime Wave Press 
"publishes a range of crime fiction -- from whodunits to Noir and Hardboiled, from historical mysteries to espionage thrillers, from literary crime to pulp fiction, from highly commercial page turners to marginal texts exploring the world's dark underbelly."
My first experience with this small indie press was, coincidentally, a book by the author of the book featured in today's post, Tom Vater.  The title was The Devil's Road to Kathmandu,  and it was a hell of a story that I remember not wanting to put down, so naturally I said yes when asked if I'd consider reading another one by the same writer.   This time around the action takes place in Thailand, and The Monsoon Ghost Image is the end of a trio of books featuring Detective Maier after The Cambodian Book of the Dead and The Man With the Golden Mind.   

Former war correspondent, after years in the field and the death of a friend from Cambodia, Maier no longer wants nothing at all to do with war.  He now (2002) works  in "Hamburg's most prestigious detective agency,"and as the story begins, his boss Sundermann hands him a strange case.  It seems that he has had a call from an Emilie Ritter, a woman whose famous photo journalist husband Martin Ritter is missing, presumed dead, with a funeral scheduled for the following Tuesday in Berlin.  Maier knows this already, but he gets a gut punch when Sundermann reveals that Ritter was seen in Bangkok just a couple of days earlier.  Emilie shows Maier and his partner Mikhail an email from someone with the enigmatic name of the "Wicked Witch of the East" confirming that Ritter is not only still alive, but is also "involved in the crime of the century."  Emilie needs to know whether Ritter is dead or alive, so Maier and Mikhail are off to Thailand to try and track him down.  They're there a month with no sign either way, the calm before the storm after which all hell breaks loose, centering around "the world's most wanted photograph, the 21st century's Zapruder document."

As with most thriller novels, while reading The Monsoon Ghost Image  on one level I'd advise a complete suspension of disbelief, as the story explodes into seriously crazy, over-the-top territory.  Our detective friends find themselves caught up in some of the most bizarre situations imaginable (and I'm not joking here).  The story outdarks dark  -- there are at least two psychopaths whose actions will likely keep readers on the edges of their chairs, and knowing who to trust becomes downright impossible through the many twists and turns taken by this story.   Having said that, let me also say that underneath this craziness runs an undeniable grain of truth -- in the war on terror, there are certain agencies that will go to any lengths to get results, all "authorized at the highest levels of the world's most open and egalitarian society."  In the process, sometimes the line between good guys and bad guys becomes unrecognizable, and things get worse as they attempt a cover up in an effort to ensure that  their dirty secrets will never be revealed. And then, of course, there are others who just want to exploit those secrets for their own gain -- in short, as someone notes in this book,  "it's about money."

I am not normally a reader of thrillers, and while this one is, as I said, way over the top, I actually got caught up in it because I had to know what happened next.  Each time I thought things couldn't get any worse, they did, and it was a hair-raising ride to the finish.  It is not at all for the squeamish (I found myself reading quickly through some of the many gruesome scenes, the equivalent of covering my eyes while watching the same on television), and it is not for people who freak out over the use of profanity or violence.  In the end though, what made this book work well for me was a) the focus on that underlying grain of truth mentioned above combined with the author's out-there imagination  in telling that story (!)   and b) the author's depiction of Maier as a man who through it all tries to retain his humanity while others lose theirs by the wayside.  Throw in the exotic locations throughout Thailand and well, it becomes the stuff of a tv miniseries I would definitely watch.

I'd read anything written by Tom Vater -- his mind works in strange and mysterious ways, a quality I genuinely appreciate in the crime fiction universe. 

Saturday, December 1, 2018

still catching up here: The Unlit Lamp and Selected Stories, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Stark House, 2018
305 pp

paperback (read earlier)

While The Unlit Lamp and Selected Stories is not at all connected with crime, I'm posting about it here because Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is one of my favorite mystery writers of yesteryear and people who know her work in that genre might just be interested in seeing another side of the author.   This book includes not only her novel, The Unlit Lamp (1922),  but also six other stories originally published in Munsey's from 1921 to 1923.  It's a wonderful collection of tales, and my thanks go to Stark House for sending me a copy and along with that, apologies for taking forever to post about it.

 The Unlit Lamp is only one of twenty-five novels this author wrote over her lifetime; the last one, Widow's Mite (1953, which I can highly recommend), was published only two years before her death.  My guess would be that her most popular novel was her The Blank Wall (1947) followed by her earlier The Innocent Mrs. Duff  (1946), both of which are outstanding. At the same time, that leaves twenty-three more novels and a large number of short stories by this author to rediscover and to celebrate.   And while The Unlit Lamp doesn't fall into the crime/mystery category, it's still very much worth reading.  As the blurb says, it is an
"emotionally charged social drama from 1922, filled with the issues that burned so bright during the Roaring 20s as changing morals began to break down the tradition family structures of the past." 
She does in this book what she does so well in her others, as Sarah Weinman notes in the introduction to Sanxay Holding's "The Stranger in the Car" in her Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, painting
"psychologically nuanced portraits of women making sense of troubled marriages, conflicted relationships with children, or intrigue thrown up by the larger world." (195)
That, in a nutshell, could be the overall description of  The Unlit Lamp, which is one of the author's romantic novels.  It is the story of Claudine, who really wants to marry Gilbert Vincelle, and eventually does so even though her mother tells her that he will never make her happy and vice versa.  Gilbert has quite a high opinion of himself, and bases much of his worldview around that of mother's, with whom he still lives at home. As it turns out Claudine's mother was spot on in her judgment, as Gilbert takes Claudine to his mother's house immediately after their honeymoon.  It isn't at all the life Claudine imagines as a married woman, as her life becomes constricted by the expectations of her mother-in-law as to what a wife should be, as well as her husband's refusal to take her side.    By the end of three months she's ready to chuck it all but is advised not to when a family member considers (but leaves unspoken) the pariah she would become in society.  Everything that Claudine is becomes submerged, and she finds herself taking refuge in her children, in whom later she sees the cycle beginning to repeat. 

There are six "selected stories," many of which run on the same themes expressed in The Unlit Lamp: "Hanging's Too Good for Him," "A Hesitating Cinderella," "Like a Leopard," "The Aforementioned Infant," "Old Dog Tray," and "The Married Man."  The last two of these were my favorites in this group, with  "The Married Man" coming out on top of them all.  It is an excellent satire on a man's viewpoint of marriage, in which the husband decides that he can't "live any more" unless he has his freedom.  There's no one else, he  doesn't want a divorce, he doesn't want to lose his wife; he just wants to be free from marriage's "petty restrictions and obligations."  The fun begins when his wife decides to go visit her mother, sans children.   It was seriously hard not to laugh while reading this story, and I can't help but think that in many cases, this one is as just as relevant now as it was when it was written in the 1920s. Absolutely delightful.

In Sanxay Holding's crime novels, she builds her stories around the psychological; the same is true here in both The Unlit Lamp and the shorter tales, which makes this a must read for fans of this author.  Even though this book is not part of the crime/mystery genre, many of the ideas that will come out in Sanxay Holding's later novels are very much present here.  And don't miss the lovely, poignant, and insightful introduction to this book by Judith Rose Ardron, the author's granddaughter.

I just want to say that Elisabeth Sanxay Holding should hold a very special place in the history of women authors of crime, and that it is such a pity that she is not more widely read.  And once again, as I find myself doing every time I read one of her novels, I can honestly say that  I loved this book.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

and now, back with my old friends from Italy once again: The Pyramid of Mud, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin, 2018
originally published 2014 as La pirimide di fango
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
256 pp


Well, here we are at book 22 in this series, and I'm still in love with Inspector Montalbano and have no intention of ever falling out of love with him.  I'm looking at the Camilleri page at Stop You're Killing Me  and there seem to be only two more novels coming our way.  Oh, what a sad day turning the last page of the last book will be, but I'll enjoy them while I can.

I actually read this book back in October so I had to give it a quick reread before posting.  Montalbano's seen plenty of corpses in his career, but this particular dead man found in a tunnel at a construction site doesn't sit well with the inspector.  The barefoot  man was wearing only a pair of underpants and an undershirt, and had been shot in the back. Evidently, he had gone outside like this earlier that morning, and to top matters, he had come to the construction area on a bicycle.  But here's the thing: how could he have ridden the bike uphill, mortally wounded,  in the middle of a storm where it was "raining like there was no tomorrow?"   The inspector begins with the assumption that the man was fleeing from someone, but who? And what did it mean that he went into the tunnel? Was there some kind of message there?   He quickly gets an ID on the dead man and makes his way to the house, where another surprise awaits which launches Montalbano headlong into an investigation that, as the back-cover blurb says, takes him into a world "just as slimy and impenetrable as mud."

Without going into too many details here, The Pyramid of Mud is another good one from Camilleri; at the same time it's a bit darker in tone than many of the other books in this series.  It ventures into the realm of corruption, and while that's nothing new in a Montalbano novel, we find Salvo despairing, comparing the crime scene and mingling of blood with mud with the state of things in Italy:
"...the mud had entered the blood, become an integral part of it. The mud of corruption, of payoffs, of phony reimbursements, of tax evasion, cams, faked balance sheets, secret slush funds, tax havens, bunga bunga... it was all a symbol of the situation in which the whole country found itself at that moment." 
 What makes this book a bit darker in my opinion is that while he's having to cope with solving this crime, which, as in other Montalbano stories is just the tip of the iceberg,  he realizes that his mind is just not on his work.   It is, as he says,
"as though the real Montalbano had gone away and delegated matters to a rough copy of himself, a stand-in devoid of hunches and ideas, unable to make connections and draw conclusions, lacking energy, passion, vitality ..."
proceeding through the investigation  "with the same enthusiasm with which he normally signed memos in his office."  It all relates to Livia, who is having a very difficult time coping with life after events from a previous book.  It's not our usual Salvo here, and as a long-time fangirl of this character, it's really quite difficult to be caught up in his pain.  Gah -- even now I'm starting to choke up just thinking about it.

all 22 Montalbano books on the shelf, and I wouldn't part with them for the world

  LOL -- I don't usually get this involved with characters who live in crime novels, but these people are like friends whose lives entered mine some years ago and have never left.   Quite frankly, as I've said before, the people in these books are what keeps me buying and reading them, well, that plus Camilleri's savvy examination of the ongoing problems faced by his country, as well as the humor in pretty much every story and okay, the ideas I get from the food.

As I say each time, do NOT start late in the series.  Not only am I pretty much OCD when it comes to reading series novels in order, but with these books, readers who start at random will miss what came before, and each book builds on the others.  I love Inspector Montalbano and the people who surround him, and I seriously doubt that there's ever been a mystery series that has given me as much joy as this one.   And yes, book #23 was pre-ordered long ago.

something new: A Knife in the Fog, by Bradley Harper

Seventh Street Books, 2018
277 pp


Seriously, I am so behind in reading and posting that it's just beyond frustrating.  I calculate that it's about a 4-week lag, so this week I'm hoping to make up for some lost time, starting with this book, A Knife in the Fog, which as you can see by the cover, is "a mystery featuring Margaret Harkness & Arthur Conan Doyle."  What this image doesn't show  is that there's another guest star to add the cast, and that's none other than Doyle's own mentor, Dr. Joseph Bell.  The true star of this show though is the one, the only, Jack the Ripper.

In September of 1888, Doyle is surprised to receive a letter from former prime minister William Gladstone, asking him to travel to London for a task he will only explain to him in person, offering him a substantial amount of money to do so, no strings attached.  On Doyle's arrival, he is met at Gladstone's club by a Mr. Jonathan Wilkins, Gladstone's personal secretary who explains that it's about "the Whitechapel homicides."  It seems that Gladstone, who had "always been charitable to the community of fallen women in Whitechapel, had been asked by a "delegation of these ladies" to help end "this reign of terror."  Surely Mr. Doyle, whose "scientific methods of analysis to to deduce the murderer"  took shape in his Sherlock Holmes, would be willing to examine the work of the police, in order to "propose avenues of investigation they have overlooked."  Even with a substantial amount of money as payment, and the opportunity to test his theories as to the importance of science in police work, Doyle is hesitant, referring Wilkins instead to Dr. Joseph Bell. Wilkins sweetens the offer and counters with the suggestion that the two work together.   Doyle, thinking Bell won't go for it, sends a telegram and to his surprise, Bell telegraphs back that he is "intrigued," and that he would come to London the following Monday.  In the meantime, Wilkins gives Doyle the address of the woman who will be his guide through the Whitechapel area, writer Margaret Harkness.   When  Bell arrives, the pace picks up as the three not only become involved with the police  side of things, but eventually find themselves in danger as well.

Margaret Harkness, from Victorian Secrets 

While in general I like my fictional characters to remain completely fictional (unless it's historical fiction based around certain true events, as in the novel I recently finished speculating on the fate of the 1845 Franklin expedition),  I quite enjoyed the addition of Margaret Harkness to this story.  In real life, as she is portrayed in the book, she was a journalist, a writer (albeit under a male pseudonym), and a political activist.  The author introduces us to her in men's clothing, armed with a Derringer which she knows how to use.  She is also portrayed as a very strong woman with no obvious vulnerabilities except in the cases of other women she cares about, and she refuses to put up with general male BS that gets thrown her way.    Putting her in the story gave a nice lift  to the usual scenario of a fictional Arthur Conan Doyle as detective (which, let's be honest here,  has been done just too many times), or as in David Pirie's series of books that featured  Conan Doyle and Bell together weaving their logical magic and solving crimes.

Despite its focus on the Ripper murders, A Knife in the Fog, which is the author's first novel,  is not too dark of a read, so it's probably suitable for people who are looking for something beyond the cozy zone but not too close to edge of the darker spectrum.  It's suspenseful and twisty,  and overall, it's fun and a great way to spend a few hours in total relax mode.    Along with the addition of Harkness I found the mystery engaging once it reached the point where Doyle & Bell found themselves in some jeopardy.  The author also gets really quite clever at times, none more so than towards the end where he pulls off an amazing sleight of hand I wasn't quite expecting.   I was also quite impressed with the author's knowledge of the slums of Whitechapel of the time.   At the same time (and it's probably a me thing), I'm not a huge fan of the many deductive-reasoning scenes going on between Doyle and Bell where they are bedazzling each other with their Holmes-like conclusions about people or events  -- in this case, less would be have been more.  And with apologies to Mary Roach, who back-blurbed this novel saying that it had an "utterly unexpected reveal,"  I guessed the who (but not the why) long before that time. I also think there are a number of scenes that could have been left out which would have made this a much more tight narrative  (involving Margaret's roommate) with absolutely no detriment to the story.

However, let me say that I read a LOT of first attempts at novels and I knew that this one was different from the moment I opened it.  The man can write and write well, something I genuinely appreciate these days when, thanks to  e-publishing, everyone can be an author, including some people who really shouldn't.  Truth be told, I much prefer a book where the writing is good with a few niggling mistakes than one with an okay plot and bad writing.   Despite my own little "me things" and nags about this novel about some rookie errors made here and there, it was absolutely refreshing and even pleasurable to read this book. 

Friday, November 9, 2018

*The Blotting Book, by E.F. Benson

Hogarth, 1987
originally published 1908
255 pp


It generally takes me a couple of weeks to recover from October's dark-read fest, but I'm back again, with a novel from 1908, The Blotting Book by E.F. Benson.   I had planned to read this book quite some time ago but, as often happens here at casa mia, it arrived, I shelved it, and promptly lost it.  I found it again mid-October while going through my horror/supernatural books  (which live in a different room from British crime)  and had to laugh at myself --  I'm a huge fan of the author's ghost stories, so evidently my mind said "E.F. Benson. Upstairs" and I shelved it next to the other books I have written by him. I would guess that most readers of British fiction are familiar with E.F. Benson as the author of Mapp and Lucia; anyone who is a serious reader of ghost stories would also know the name.  The fact that he wrote a mystery novel or two was news to me; I had no absolutely no idea until I read Martin Edwards' The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.  There he was, with The Blotting Book sitting between  Horniman's Israel Rank and Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown.  [As a completely unrelated sidebar, I'll be following Edwards' book as a guide for mystery/crime reading all of next year, title by title; I've read quite a few of these so it probably won't be all 100.]    This edition is part of Hogarth's Gaslight Crime series; I have quite of few of these little gems sitting in my British reading room, including another one by this author called The Luck of the Vails.   It's also available online at Project Gutenberg, and there are a few versions available for Kindle. 

Benson opens this story at a house in Sussex Square, Brighton, the home of a Mrs. Assheton.  She had lived there all alone until her son Morris came home from Cambridge.  It is a well-ordered, upper-class home in which everything is done to perfection.  For guests, it stands as "an example of perfect comfort," run precisely as it was before her husband's death some twenty years earlier.   Twenty-one year old Morris is Mrs. Assheton's only heir, and by the terms of his father's will,  Morris will gain his majority and thereby come into "complete control and possession" of  his fortune if he waits until he is twenty-two to marry with Mrs. Assheton's consent; failing that, he will regain  minor status until he is twenty-five. The thirty-thousand pounds that his father had left him is under the trusteeship of the family attorneys Taynton and Mills, who, as Mr. Taynton assures Morris one evening at a small gathering, have carefully invested on his behalf, so that ten thousand more pounds have been added to his portion of the inheritance.  Since the money would fall under Morris' control should Morris marry, Taynton invites Morris to take a look at the books pertaining to his account in their "stewardship," an offer that Morris declines.  As to the question of marriage, Morris most definitely has someone in mind, the other guest at the house that evening, a Miss Madge Templeton.   What Morris doesn't know, though, is that someone has gone to Madge's father and filled his head with some pretty ugly things to the point where Madge has suddenly been forbidden to see Morris in their usual way.    For reasons I won't reveal, Morris probably should have taken an interest in his accounts; he should have also listened to Taynton when he said that "we lawyers and solicitors are always supposed to be sharks..." since what is revealed that very same night at a meeting of the two attorneys reveals some very sharklike behavior, and also acts as a catalyst for everything that's going to follow, none the least of which is murder.


As Edwards notes in his book, this is a slowly-unfolding story, one that reflects "the unhurried nature of life among the well-to-do in Edwardian Britain."  (21)  It is also a novel that limits the number of possible suspects to the point where as it gets closer to the end, it becomes rather easy to guess the "who" since basically we start running out of people who could possibly be guilty.  Before that, however, Benson drops every sort of imaginable clue as well as a dream sequence that had the armchair detective in me second guessing myself for a while.    Interestingly, unlike many of the books published at the time, there is no detective figure -- the investigation as such was handled by a Superintendent Figgis, who makes an appearance here and there, and is described by Benson as
"in manner, slow, stout, and bored, and looked in every way utterly unfitted to find clues to the least mysterious occurrences, unearth crime or run down the criminal"
and "an incompetent agent of justice." 

While it may not be the most exciting mystery of its day, I stayed engrossed throughout wondering how things would turn out, largely due to Benson's writing because he delves into the inner workings of the main characters, especially that of the criminal.  In this sense, Benson's done a top-notch job despite the fact that the mystery is just too easy to figure out, especially for seasoned crime readers.   I can see that many modern readers could easily grow bored with this book, but anyone into vintage crime and mysteries really at least ought to give it a try.  And now that I've moved it downstairs where it belongs, it is a very welcome addition to my library of British mystery fiction.

Friday, October 12, 2018

According to the Evidence, by Hugh Pendexter

Black Dog Books, 2013
stories originally serialized 1906-1914
281 pp


Continuing my look at crime fiction and mysteries just up to the end of World War I, today's book is a collection of short stories by pulp author Hugh Pendexter, whose historical fiction is legendary.  Before I go on, I have to take my hat off to the blogger at Pulpflakes, who found way more than I did about this author.

According to the Evidence is a compilation of tales about a law firm known as The Bureau of Abnormal Litigation.  As author Jeremiah Healy writes in his introduction, these stories serve as a "window into our legal fiction of the early twentieth century."  The Bureau, which is often "called upon as a last resort in many peculiar cases,"  is headed by a certain Ezra Stackpole Butterworth, who sees himself as a
 "foolish, benevolent old man, who tries to help stupid humanity out of trouble." 
He has "mastered the peculiar happenings of life," and will only accept cases which are "abnormal," having always been
 "attracted to the unusual phases of life, called abnormal because so little observed."
When he first came to the law as a profession, he noticed
"many instances where the exact truth would have saved a case, but was ignored because of a fear it might not be believed, or because it impressed counsel as being trivial,"  
leading the Bureau to often refuse retainers in the "absence of any unique ingredient."   Butterworth's  fame has spread to the point that when reporters discover that he's going to be taking on a particular case, it is "sufficient to set the press-table to buzzing," while leaving the DA to wonder about "the inevitable surprise" that's sure to come.   Butterworth is not a detective, but he's sharp as a tack and doesn't miss a trick. He has an assistant, Jethuel who he often puts to work as a sort of private investigator, and another member of the firm who was invited to join the  Bureau to "look after the criminal branch" of the business.

Throughout the course of the thirteen cases the Bureau tackles in this book, circumstances are indeed a bit strange.  In "The Death Cup," for example, there's the statement of the maid who swears she she saw "one or more eyes" staring at her as she stumbles upon a dead body; in "According to the Evidence" (one of my favorites in this book),  an alienist's testimony as to the sanity of his client is called into question as he is forced under oath to relate his own strange visions, and in "Circumstantial Evidence," a pianist dies of a gunshot wound while alone in his apartment.    The shorter stories are fun, but the centerpiece in this book is definitely the novella-length "The Crimson Tracks," which not only has an entertaining mystery involving a strange manuscript, red footprints that come and go, and some pretty quirky characters, but also, given the time, a most ingenious solution to this bizarre case that I never saw coming.

the first appearance of Pendexter's "The Chelsea Vase," in Adventure (Vol. 8 #3, July, 1914) from The General Fiction Magazine Index

Pendexter's stories filled pages and pages of pulp magazines over the years, and luckily the good folks at Black Dog Books have taken the time to put some of these stories into collections like The Bureau of Abnormal Litigation, and  I have another anthology of Pendexter crime tales sitting on my shelves, The Voice of the Night, the stories of Jefferson Fanchon, "Inquirer"  in which Pendexter pits his crime solver against  an evil crime genius plaguing New York.

Bottom line: this book is a fun example of early pulpy crime fiction that would probably appeal to readers who are really into this sort of thing as well as readers of vintage crime who haven't yet discovered Pendexter.    Despite the title there's nothing supernatural about these tales -- just good old fashioned crime solving with a fun premise and a few curveballs thrown in to a) make the cases interesting and b) make the reader chuckle every now and then. I can see that it might get a bit tedious at times for readers of modern crime, but it's solidly right up my pulp-reading, fiction comfort-food alley.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

*Trent's Last Case, by E.C. Bentley

Harper Collins, Detective Story Club, 2017
originally published 1913
212 pp

"This mystery is all wrong."

In John Curran's introduction to this edition, he refers to Trent's Last Case as "one of the most famous milestones in the genre."  He quotes EC Bentley from his autobiography, Those Days (1940) where he writes
"Some time in the year 1910 it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to write a detective story of a new sort..."
and, "among the dozens of detectives" (long dominated by and modeled after Sherlock Holmes) currently filling magazine pages in a market that was "thriving," as Curran notes, "the stage was set" for just that.  Enter Philip Trent.

Trent is an artist who does fairly well, and also works from time to time as a journalist.  It is in this role that he becomes involved in the case of the death of American businessman Sigsbee Manderson, the "Colossus" of Wall Street, a man whose number one concern was the accumulation of his own wealth, often becoming "lawless or ruthless" in the process.  He's someone that no one will likely mourn, most especially the "tens of thousands of the poor;" in his lifetime he is "execrated" by the "financier or the speculator" as well.   And as Trent himself will come to remark later,
"Here's a man suddenly and violently killed, and nobody's heart seems to be broken about it, to say the least."
Trent's work in journalism has brought him a reputation for having "great powers as a detective," with "past successes" in solving cases which have left the police stymied.  However, in writing his detective as someone "as far away from Holmes," as possible, Bentley's Trent has good relations with the police, who are not an object of scorn or derision, but rather people with whom Trent has no problems in terms of cooperation.   In this case though,  even Trent has not-so-positive feelings about investigating Manderson's death; as he says,
"I tell you frankly, I wouldn't have a hand in hanging a poor devil who had let daylight into a man like Sig Manderson as a measure of social protest." 
But he takes on the case anyway and despite a number of suspects and theories, he quickly comes to a solution.  However, he encounters complications that lead Trent to question his confidence as a detective, the biggest of them arising in the form of the murdered man's widow, "The Woman in Black" of the American title of this novel.   I can't really say any more without giving away the show here, but as it turns out, it's probably a good thing that he didn't have his findings published in his newspaper.

There is no question as to the importance of this book in mystery/detective fiction history.   Curran refers to Trent's Last Case in  his introduction as  "one of the most famous milestones in the genre,"  "one of the earliest defining detective novels of the twentieth century"  and a book that "heralded, in fact, detective fiction's Golden Age," a statement with which any number of later detective fiction writers, critics, scholars, and readers concur.   I also can't help but think that  the switch to a more human sort of detective must have been a welcome change to contemporary readers.   Now that I've read this book after finishing a huge number of detective stories where the central character is a serious, Holmesian sort of figure where reasoning or science rules the entire story, I found that I quite enjoyed Trent's "fallible human" personality.  As Bentley wrote, quoted here at House of Stratus:
"I am not sure why Sherlock Holmes and his earlier imitators could never be at all amusing or light-hearted; but it may have been because they felt they had a mission, and had to sustain a position of superiority to the ordinary run of mankind."
Not so with Philip Trent: we watch him sort of crumble a bit while falling in love, lose his confidence more than once, experience doubt and anxiety, and eventually acknowledge his own "high-blown pride" and "the impotence of human reason." Frankly, I find his character quite a breath of fresh air at this stage of the mystery/detective fiction game. 

The twisty plot, however, is the true centerpiece of this book, and as I said to someone recently, I've read so much crime fiction that I feel sometimes like I know every plot possible.  However, Trent's Last Case came with a totally unexpected ending that made me say a not-so-quiet "bravo" in appreciation for a job well done. 

I can recommend this book with no qualms at all -- just please bear in mind when it was written (just coming out of the Edwardian era) when it comes to some rather objectionable content.  It is still a worthy read, even for the most modern mystery and crime fiction lovers.

And one more thing:  I LOVE these Harper hardcover reprints!!