My only experience with Anthony Berkeley so far has been The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Famous as it is for its multiple solutions, I was just as struck by Berkeley’s acerbic wit. Each character was so deliciously smug in their observations of others, and yet so completely blind to their own foibles.
Trial and Error may not feature as tight of a mystery as The Poisoned Chocolates Case, but it more than makes up for it with a steady feed of wry observations. Anthony Berkeley, through his characters, is so delectably smarmy that I can only imagine that he was the blueprint for Christianna Brand’s work that was to come in the following decades. No other mystery writer seems to come close when it comes to communicating an entire story solely via sardonic observations.
Trial and Error tells the story of Mr Todhunter, an aging bachelor condemned to death by his doctor for reason of aneurism. As his final months dwindle away, Todhunter finds himself fixated on the question of what better value he can provide with the remains of his life: to do a great deal of good for a few individuals, or to prevent the suffering of many by killing someone who preys on others. How the story unfolds from here is best to experience on your own – there’s that many interesting twists in the first few chapters alone. It’s no secret though that Trial and Error is considered to be an inverted mystery, so I’ll leave it at that.
Well, I’ll leave the plot at that, but I think that the label of inverted mystery perhaps does an injustice to this story. Not that inverted mystery is a criticism in any sense – there’s plenty to be enjoyed with that niche – it’s just that Trial and Error would be done a disservice to be labeled as a mystery at all. That’s because it’s a damn fine story in it’s own right. Yes, there is a murder; yes, there are questions to be answered throughout; yes, you know who committed the crime; yet still, this feels just as much the great 30/40s era novel as any other I can think of. Plus, if you come in looking for a mystery, even of the inverted kind, you may find yourself wanting (and if you were surprised by the final twist… my pour soul). And yet I think you’ll find yourself satisfied.
It’s the character of Mr Todhunter that really sets this apart. He’s an odd old crank of sorts, and yet goes through life in a most content way. I couldn’t help but find myself wrapped up in his every thought and experience, which is due in part to Berkeley’s sublime commentary on it all. We’re also treated to amateur detective Ambrose Chitterwick, who was among the cast of The Poisoned Chocolates Case.
The story isn’t without its faults. You could shave 100 pages off of it for sure; they’d come from the sagging middle section, in which the tale somewhat meanders and Berkeley’s wit becomes more sparse. You’d miss out on time with Mr Todhunter though – which feels corny to say – and if you let go of the pretense that this is a mystery, why not just keep the experience going? Plus – good god – that’s one hell of a beginning and end of a story!
Anthony Berkeley went on to write only two more novels by my count. I’d lament that if I could even come close to getting my hands on three quarters of his work. I do have a few of the books that he published under the Francis Iles name, and so I expect I’ll go with one of those next.
I was lucky enough come across a 1945 Pocket Book edition for a few dollars. It’s one of those war-time books where the pages are surprisingly thin due to paper rationing. You’d think that may lead to delicate pages 74 years later, but really you get this soft paper of unmatched quality.
I was surprised that there was no copyright page in the beginning of the book – it just goes directly to a table of contents and cast of characters. I was only able to figure out the actual year of the edition thanks to an ad on the final page for other available books by the publisher.