Trial and Error – Anthony Berkeley (1937)

TrialAndErrorMy 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.

My edition

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.

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25 thoughts on “Trial and Error – Anthony Berkeley (1937)”

  1. Yeah, the beginning is superb, the end enjoyably stark, and — in fairness — everything up to the murder is as joyfully Berkeleyan as that mephistophelean genius ever got…but, wow, once the murder is done this does draaaaaag, and you can feel the ideas beginning to dry up.

    I’d love to read some of the reviews he wrote once he quite fiction writing — like Leo Bruce, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anthony Boucher, I can believe he’d turn his back on the craft but have a lot to share in his insights…though I can also believe Berkeley may not have been as polite or witty in his criticisms as those three…

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    1. Even the middle is interesting in retrospect. In that sense, this would be worth a reread sometime down the road.

      As to Anthony Berkeley giving up the form – yeah, that seems like one of the unfortunate turns for the genre. It’s interesting though how only a handful of his books receive any attention these days. I have to think that’s mainly due to negligence rather than talent – there’s no way all of those lesser known books just suck.

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      1. Well I’ve reviewed 9 of them on my blog and read a handful more, un-reviewed, so I’m doing my bit for Berkeley promoting lol I really want to get a copy of Professor on Paws as that title just begs an investigation. Mr Priestley’s Problem certainly divides opinions but I think its best to see it from the perspective of a it being a send up of the innocent fugitive on the run plot line.

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  2. I also enjoyed my time with Mr. Todhunter and the scene with the hangman is one of my favorites.

    I’d lament that if I could even come close to getting my hands on three quarters of his work.

    Sadly, a good chunk of his work has gone out-of-print again with many second-hand copies being ridiculous expensive. Even worse, the only two recent reprints, The Wychford Poisoning Case and The Silk Stocking Murders, are of two of his worst novels. I haven’t read the former, but the latter is a far cry from his best work.

    But if you want to get out of your way to get your hands on a good Berkeley novel, you have to go for a good, inexpensive copy of Jumping Jenny.

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      1. On ebay (uk) you can get a copy for under £10 if you go for the American title: Dead Mrs Stratton, as that did get a reprint from Hogarth Crime. Not sure about US sites, but it be the most expedient way of getting the book.

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  3. I’m in two minds about this. Yes, there is innovation, inventiveness and a certain courage on display. However, I also have to say that I didn’t feel that I’d especially “enjoyed” the book when I finished reading it. I have a feeling that the farcical, black comedy elements didn’t entirely work for me and that colored the whole experience. Actually, there is a certain type of sly and arch humor that does tend to put me off, and it is present here. I had a pretty rotten time earlier this year with Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt as a result of that – while this book is far better and much more successful than that, it still suffers somewhat from this, as far as I’m concerned anyway.
    For what it’s worth, I also have to say that this was my first Berkeley novel and despite owning another half dozen or thereabouts, I’ve not felt the urge to read another since.

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    1. The Poisoned Chocolates Case should cure you of that. One of the finest GAD novels ever written, a true masterpiece. If you don’t like that, you can give up on Berkeley/Iles for life without a backward glance.

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      1. But if the humour here isn’t for you, then the humour elsewhere won’t be either — same result. And it’s not as if the book lives and dies by the jokes, like Case for Three Detectives; TPCC is primarily a superb game, rather than something that relies on being a “funny” GAD novel to get through, right?

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      2. True – TPCC is by no means a comedy. It is very much a classic mystery. Yet if Berkeley’s coy style grates on you (I personally can’t relate to how that would be), it’s definitely present.

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      3. I find him far more facetious during some of the Sheringham books — Layton, Wychford, Second Shot, etc — and so I’d certainly agree that his relatively underplayed tone here would seem like nirvana to anyone jumping into those first (the grimness of Iles doesn’t quite prepare one for the smug knowing air of the Roger S. books, either).

        Either way, TPCC is the perfect tester. As an elbow in the water, it’s ideal for Berkeley and — arguably — GAD as a whole. Search elsewhere if not to your liking, people!

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  4. We shall see. Mood too, that needs to be taken into account – I’ve seen my own assessment of books shift quite radically when I’ve reread them, and that’s generally down to being in a different frame of mind or holding different expectations.

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  5. I’m a big Berkeley fan, and Trial and Error is probably my favorite next to The Poisoned Chocolates Case, but I’ve been reluctant to recommend it to others because, as you say, it’s far too long. I recommend several of the Berkeley books, though some with minor reservations: Top Storey Murder (Carr’s favorite of Berkeley’s books); Jumping Jenny/Dead Mrs. Stratton (I think the latter part falters, but that may be because the first third is so wonderful); The Layton Court Mystery (another of my favorites, though the locked room is a dud); Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery/Mystery of Lovers’ Cave (underrated IMO); and The Piccadilly Murder (also with Chitterwick). I agree with TomCat—avoid The Wychford Poisoning Case and Silk Stocking Murders, or at least don’t start with them..

    I’ve actually been trying to sell off my duplicate Berkeleys (mostly hardcover reprints) on the GADetection group, but still have plenty left (including a Penguin Jumping Jenny for $6–or Dead Mrs Stratton for $12if you prefer hardcover—a Top Storey Murder Hodder reprint for $5… and a Professor on Paws). I also have several “used Carrs” and other GADs. I’ll send the list to anyone who e-mails me at awrobins@yahoo.com. Shipping at cost, but I live in the US, so overseas shipping costs may be prohibitive. Some of Berkeley’s books are available cheap on abebooks.com or bookfinder.com (my prices should be cheaper, at least in the US).

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  6. A further note, especially for JJ: Berkeley’s reviews (as Francis Iles) for the Sunday Times are available in the Sunday Times Digital Archive, if you’re near a library that has that database. He reviewed some late 1930s detective novels for John o’London’s Weekly, which are harder to find. I’ve compiled a bibliography at http://home.lagrange.edu/arobinson/coxbibliog.htm ; e-mail me at arobinson@lagrange.edu or awrobins@yahoo.com if you want scans of some of his reviews. I’m actually working on a series of articles on his reviews for CADS. I quoted a few of his reviews (not of mysteries) for a previous CADS article, which I paste below; I think they confirm your suspicion that he was not as polite a reviewer as Sayers:

    All I can say is that with its cheap cant, its “Dear Gods!” and its revolting, false sentimentality, this crude, tawdry book made me feel quite ill. (Time and Tide, July 1, 1933)

    I have never read such drivel in my life. (Time and Tide, Aug. 12, 1933)

    I wonder further, in some resentment at having had to waste my time reading it, why this silly, vulgar, dreary, common, and, in places, almost revolting would-be farce, was ever published at all. (Time and Tide, Nov. 4, 1933)

    (Carr and Christie come off much better in his reviews; luckily, since they dined together at the Detection Club.)

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  7. A further note, especially for JJ: Berkeley’s reviews (as Francis Iles) for the Sunday Times are available in the Sunday Times Digital Archive, if you’re near a library that has that database. He reviewed some late 1930s detective novels for John o’London’s Weekly, which are harder to find. I’ve compiled a bibliography at http://home.lagrange.edu/arobinson/coxbibliog.htm ; e-mail me at arobinson@lagrange.edu or awrobins@yahoo.com if you want scans of some of his reviews. I’m actually working on a series of articles on his reviews for CADS. I quoted a few of his reviews (not of mysteries) for a previous CADS article, which I paste below; I think they confirm your suspicion that he was not as polite a reviewer as Sayers:

    All I can say is that with its cheap cant, its “Dear Gods!” and its revolting, false sentimentality, this crude, tawdry book made me feel quite ill. (Time and Tide, July 1, 1933)

    I have never read such drivel in my life. (Time and Tide, Aug. 12, 1933)

    I wonder further, in some resentment at having had to waste my time reading it, why this silly, vulgar, dreary, common, and, in places, almost revolting would-be farce, was ever published at all. (Time and Tide, Nov. 4, 1933)

    (His reviews of mysteries are more interesting to read. Carr and Christie come off better than these three.)

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