Trial and Error (1937) by Anthony Berkeley

This re-read was inspired by Ben, author of the blog The Green Capsule, who read this book for the first time in September. It’s been over four years since I first read this book, so a second reading definitely felt in order.

Berkeley starts with a great premise: A man named Lawrence Todhunter is told he has only a short time to live and after much surreptitious discussion decides to use his remaining time to eradicate a deserving person from this world. This is a high impact opening and one which could be considered highly risky. After all, will the reader find such an idea so repellent they don’t wish to read any more of the book? Or perhaps such an ethical quandary might seem too heavy a beginning for a mystery novel? Yet I feel Berkeley tackles well the themes brought up, manipulating them into generating a plausible rhetoric for eliminating appropriate people for the benefit of others. To this Berkeley stacks the deck character wise, only having one character in the opening discussion against Todhunter’s notion. This is essential, of course, for the book to move in the direction it does. A more balanced debate would have defeated the plot entirely. Moreover, Berkeley is quick to ensure that his characters ultimately dismiss political assassination; for such a murder target would degenerate the plot into a thriller variant and Berkeley has far more ambitious aims for this book. That and the fact that it is inconceivable to imagine anyone like Todhunter knocking off Mussolini or Hitler. It is also pertinent to remember that eugenics was a still a current topic. It would only be two more years until the publication of the Eugenic Manifesto and Agatha Christie, even wrote a published stage play called Eugenia and Eugenics. So, it is conceivable that Berkeley was tapping into this issue of the day. Though the text’s questioning of human life shouldn’t lead to an automatic assumption that the author was in favour of such matters. But such arguments are required in some form to manoeuvre Todhunter into the position he finally takes. In keeping with other mysteries of the 1930s, such as The Murder on the Orient Express (1934), this is a story which considers the justifiable murder.

Such an opening may seem rather gloomy or oppressive, but Berkeley ensures that his prose remains fairly light. The reader is not encouraged into being emotionally unsettled at this early stage. No wallowing is allowed. In fact, we are more likely to be feel sorry for Todhunter, when he is being silently criticised from head to toe by Jean Norwood, rather than when the doctor is giving him the bad news about his health.

Todhunter is understandably at the centre of this piece and Berkeley does a good job in making him a likeable and endearing enough person, despite being determined to be a murderer. Social humour is a key part of this, from the moment he avows he will not lunch with the repulsive Jean Norwood:

‘As he mopped, Mr Todhunter was firmly determined on one thing: that next Tuesday he would have a sick headache, an infectious disease of peculiar malignity or be, if necessary, dead. But he would not be lunching with Miss Norwood.’

… to his more negative feelings: ‘Here were the impressions of two persons that Miss Norwood was a lady of charm and sweetness, whereas Mr Todhunter’s own conviction had been that she was a rude word.’ It is also to Berkeley’s credit that he gets the reader on board with Todhunter’s murder ambition. Humour is intrinsic to this, as it is somewhat darkly amusing when Todhunter’s first choice of victim gets bumped off by someone else. Equally the small incidences which lead him to his second choice are comically embedded in Todhunter’s hobby of pulling people’s legs by pretending to be someone he’s not. All of this keeps the atmosphere light.

In the earlier parts of the book we also get impressions on contemporary society including low opinions of statesmen and apprehensions over an upcoming war to side lights on the literary scene; in particular reviewing and reviewers:

‘It’s time something like that was said about Firkin. The man’s reputation is absurdly inflated. He’s not good at all; damn it, he’s bad! And he gets all this sickening praise because half the reviewers can’t be bothered to plough through his stuff at all and so find it easier to praise than criticise, and the other half really do think that inordinate length is a sign of genius, instead of being impressed as they should be by a man who can say just twice as much in a quarter of the space.’

Again, such occasions help the modern-day reader to engage and interact with this book, whilst considering how society, in some ways, hasn’t changed so much.

From what I have already said, the plot may appear to be your average inverted mystery. But Berkeley challenges this impression about halfway in, taking his intriguing initial premise and ramping up its greatness with a change in direction: A man who is determined to be put on trial in order to spare an innocent man from having the committed the murder. This may seem like an easy task. But it is decidedly not. This takes the text from exploring justifiable murder to the theme of how to explode a perfect murder. Of course, this gives the story an upside down and back to front feel, as ordinarily the guilty party is not quite so keen to be punished for their crimes. Nevertheless, this being Berkeley, nothing is final or for definite until the very last sentence and the same can be said for this tale too. He certainly knows how to conclude a story!

SPOILER WARNING

One idea which this re-read brought up for me was how this text makes for an interesting companion piece to Malice Aforethought (1931), which Berkeley wrote under the penname Francis Iles. Both books bear similarities in terms of writing style and for their interest in character psychology. They both begin with a character for whom events influence them into wanting to kill and the primary victim in each book is female. Yet the reason I paired these titles together is because I found the later title to almost be an inversion of the earlier story. Never have to would be murderers been so antithetical to one another. Where Doctor Bickleigh is motivated by self-interest and love for another woman, Todhunter is a confirmed bachelor and is more altruistically motivated. Bickleigh maintains his desire to get away with his deed, whilst Todhunter goes to extraordinary lengths to get himself convicted of Norwood’s murder. Although, one thing they do have in common is being convicted of crimes they didn’t do, though I think one of them is far more surprised by this outcome, than the other.

SPOILERS FINISHED

In keeping with works such as Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit and the Parker Pyne short story ‘Case of the Discontented Soldier,’ Berkeley includes adventure and melodramatic tropes found in newspaper and film serials. But in a similar way to Christie, the aim of such inclusions, is not uncritical and in Trial and Error, I think they are used as a contrast to what actually happens in the plot. For instance, one character at the start of the book gives this reply when Todhunter poses his hypothetical question of what a dying man should do with his remaining days:

‘I seem to have met some such situation before […] And I’ll tell you what inevitably happens. Rendered reckless by this knowledge of his approaching end, the man, who by the way is generally a feeble, henpecked, downtrodden fellow, suddenly develops power hitherto quite unknown to himself, engages in a desperate struggle with a super-villain, knocks out his gang singlehanded, falls in love with an incredibly beautiful girl whom he at first believes to be a member of the gang and then discovers chained to the wall in a cellar with the water up to her chin, is unable to marry her because of his coming death – and discovers at the last minute that the doctor was wrong all the time.’

Of course, since Todhunter is the dying man in question, this fairy tale like pen portrait only emphasises how much Todhunter does not match this picture and the reader knows that the inevitable chain of events outlined above, are not going to occur for him. The theme of the unlikely killer is certainly relevant to this story and begins from the very first description of Todhunter: ‘He poked forward his small round head, which was balanced on top of his gaunt frame rather like a potato that has been left out of its sack, and peered through his glasses at the civilian.’ And as we get to know Todhunter more, even his personality reinforces this point. Nevertheless, Berkeley is cunning in using positive traits within Todhunter to propel him into the actions he takes: ‘nevertheless, impelled by those twin furies, duty and a relentless conscience he got down the new revolver…’ This upending of good and bad is very much in keeping with Berkeley’s work overall.

This review has been decidedly positive so far and for good reason, yet a quick look at my final rating may leave you scratching your heads. But I leave it to The Saturday Review’s Criminal Record to introduce the weakness: ‘A brilliant idea (discover it for yourself) and expertly handled, but there are moments when it becomes tedious’ (6th November 1937). In Ben’s review of this book he writes that ‘you could shave 100 pages off of it for sure,’ and I am in agreement with this. Small incidences make up a significant amount of this plot and whilst the writing style is to be savoured and the book is not to be sped through, I think some of these plot events could have excised. The ending is a case in point. We do arrive at the bombshell conclusion, but the pages preceding it could have been made much snappier.

Rating: 4.25/5

5 comments

  1. Great to read this review (and not to read the spoiler paragraph, which I skipped over)! Trial and Error has long been one of those GAD titles that I have been itching to get to because of its reputation and premise, but have never grabbed it from the bookshelf… perhaps because of the double size and 100-page overreach that you mention. But the concept is wonderful and you have intrigued me once more. So for 2020, I think I’ll add reading this book to my New Year’s resolutions. All best wishes — Jason

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Trial and Error (1937) – This was a re-read which I only just posted about yesterday, and it was probably one of the hardest ones to place. The premise is worthy of the books which have ranked better than it, but what holds it back from being in the top 3 is its need for a page reduction, as the book is overlong and given the nature of the plot, this has a dampening effect. Nevertheless, it is still very much worth reading and probably wouldn’t even seem that long if you’re used to reading the doorsteps that modern day crime novels often resemble. […]

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