Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Boost of the Blurb 2: The Case of the Trent's Last Case Reprint (1929)

Blogger Kate Jackson at Cross Examining Crime, recently asked for the origin of Agatha Christie's blurbed praise of E. C. Bentley's landmark detective novel, Trent's Last Case: "one of the three best detective stories ever written."

I can't say whether this is the actual origin, but in 1929 this praise from Christie appeared on the back panel of a dust jacket to a Knopf reprint edition of Trent's Last Case.  However, Christie's praise, in contrast with the cheese, did not stand alone.  Nine other British crime writers were blurbed on the back panel, as you can see below, under the heading "What your favorite authors say":  It gives you a good roll call a some of the notables of British detective fiction in the late 1920s, when the Detection Club was cohering.

see Facsimile Dust Jackets

Left Column, top to bottom

Edgar Wallace
Trent's Last Case is a masterpiece of detective fiction.

Freeman Wills Crofts
I have read the book three times with an increased interest each time: one of the best detective stories extant.  

J. J. Connington
Mr. Bentley's record is, as far as I know, without a parallel....a detective story which appeals to women as well as men.  It does not date, it might have been written yesterday.

J. S. Fletcher
The very best and cleverest detective story I have read.

Right column, top to bottom

Ronald Knox
I suppose somebody might write a story as good as Trent's Last Case, but I have been waiting nearly twenty years for it to happen.

R. Austin Freeman
The literary workmanship is of a quality that must satisfy the most fastidious reader.

Agatha Christie
One of the three best detective stories ever written.

Dorothy Sayers
It is the one detective story of the present century which I am certain will go down in posterity as a classic.  It is a masterpiece.

G. D. H. and M. I. Cole
The best detective story we have ever read.

Trust Edgar
Some of these blurbs are superbly characteristic of the blurbers.  Christie, Fletcher and Wallace--writers extremely proficient at getting right down to business--are short and simple in their praise.  Sayers has an air of, "I have pronounced," perhaps common to people who write criticism (ahem!).  Knox has a note of humor, while Crofts is precise (he's read the tome three times) and a tad stodgy (extant). Freeman is a tad stodgy as well.

Connington probably will be dinged for sexism, and, having written about him extensively in Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery" I can't deny that he presents some issues in that regard, but in fact he was reflecting the wide perception at the time that true detective fiction (as opposed to shockers) appealed more to men than to women.

It was only until the rise in the 1930s of crime writers, often women, who put more emphasis on characterization and literary style (and dare I say love interest) that this perception (and arguably the reality) really changed. This development is something I discuss in Masters. (You'll notice only three of the ten blurbers are women.)

I originally came across this information when editing a Roger Ellis essay on J. S. Fletcher which was included in Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene.  Fletcher in the 1920s and early 1930s was one of the most people detective fiction authors in the world.  All of the blurbers, incidentally, became founding members of the Detection Club, formed the next year in 1930, except for Fletcher and Edgar Wallace.  Fletcher likely was considered too dodgy on the matter of "fair play" presentation of clues, while the Detection Club to some degree was created to distinguish true detective fiction from the "shockers" of Edgar Wallace and other crime writers of the palpitation school.

It was the blurb from Wallace, you'll notice, which appeared on the front of the dust jacket, indicating who really ruled the roost in those days.  But it appears that Trent's Last Case managed to unite all British mystery writers.  On this matter Crime Queens, Humdrums and Farceurs all concurred with the Titan of Thrills.

One question remains: Why did this list of blurbs appear on a book published by Knopf, an American publisher?  (Their stable of authors included J. S. Fletcher and Dashiell Hammett.)  Did the list appear first in Britain?  Were these testimonials solicited  and then edited? (Notice the ellipses in the Connington quotation.)  Or had they already appeared in other sources and been assiduously collected by some Knopf editor?  Mysteries remain for literary  investigators!

Also, what were the other two best detective stories, according to Christie?

Also see The Boost of the Blurb: Death of a Beauty Queen (1935), by E. R. Punshon


  1. I was just wondering why when you quote Christie's comment you don't include the word 'three'? As the quote on the dust jacket does say 'One of the three best detective stories ever written'. Probably me being fatigue induced nit picky but it does rather change the tone of the comment.

    1. I just typed over it both times. And I knew that was what you had asked about too. Yes, "three best" definitely narrows it down! Someone else will have to find out what the other two were.

  2. But it is great you have tracked down a potential original source for the quote and also confirmed that Christie did actually say this, as there are a lot of so called "Christie quotes" which often turn out to be false.

    1. I discussed the term "Golden Age" being employed first, as far as I know, by John Strachey in a CADS essay several years ago. That phrase (and quotation) since has been rather prominently employed. I think a lot of people hadn't realized that Howard Haycraft hadn't used it first.

      Then there's the one about detective fiction being the normal recreation of noble minds, attributed to Phillip Guedalla. I've never seen the original source for that.

    2. I think the quote I was most disappointed to find wasn't true was one about Christie was meant to have said about archaeologists making the best husbands, being that they get more interested in you the older you get (or something to effect anyways).

    3. Oh, no, I thought she did say that! Drat. Are you doing a blog piece on what Christie said or didn't say? That would be very interesting.

    4. No I hadn't thought of doing a blog piece on it. Though it would be an interesting topic if you could find the relevant source material. I only mentioned that example as I remember reading about it in Ramsey's book Agatha Christie: Mistress of Mystery.

  3. Kate, I left out the three when I was typing! I was just editing it when you were posting these comments. All fixed now.

  4. I'll be more nitpicky- jj conington didn't call him Berkeley did he?

    1. Urk, thanks, guess who I must have had on my mind when I did that? ;). I shall correct.

      Happily anyone can click the dust jacket image to check the veracity of the quotations!

  5. Excellent! I too wanted to know the answer to Kate's question, and I might have know you'd be able to help...

    1. Moira, I knew that I knew something about it when Kate mentioned it, but it took me most of the day to recall what is was that I knew that I knew! ;)