TRIAL AND ERROR (1937) by Anthony Berkeley

It’s time for a guest post from my blogging buddy Livius, who writes about movies at his marvellous blog, Riding the High Country. And now it’s over to the man himself:

The inverted crime story is one where the perpetrator is known from the outset, or close enough to it, and the thrust of the story is carried forward by our interest in seeing law or its representatives piece together the clues and evidence that will bring the criminal to book. In short, if you’ve ever seen an episode of Columbo, then you know exactly what I mean.

We submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, hosted today by Todd Mason at his Sweet Freedom blog

“Yes,” said Mr Todhunter. “Then what it all amounts to is that the man with only a few months to live can’t do anything better than commit a murder, of the type defined. You really believe that?”

That quotation is the premise upon which Anthony Berkeley’s Trial and Error (1937) is based, a scenario that I’d be inclined to term a variation, in more ways than one, on the inverted crime formula. Right from the beginning we learn that Lawrence Todhunter is a man living on borrowed time, that an aneurysm will surely claim his life in a relatively short space of time.  Under the circumstances, I imagine few people would then proceed to arrange a meeting of friends and acquaintances of various spiritual and philosophical points of view for the purpose of surreptitiously picking their brains on how best to utilize the time remaining.

Todhunter is a bit of an oddity though. A middle-aged bachelor and comfortably upper middle class, he lives in the suburbs and has no close dependents. Such a man might be expected to look for the most pleasurable ways of passing his soon to be curtailed life. But not Todhunter, his thoughts run to how he might do something of use, something that would make the world  better place. And so he consults friends, and comes to the conclusion that he should seek out someone who deserves to die, and then set about ensuring that indeed happens. Yet, as with many things in life, the results don’t always come out the way you hope.

Trial and Error is as much a black comedy as a crime story, the inherent absurdity of the ever growing complexity becomes something of a dark farce, and the character of Todhunter moves from a kind of initial pitiable pomposity towards the arch and sly as complications spin off to meet and mate with further difficulties, producing even more pitfalls, stumbling blocks and so on. There is, of course, a twist in the tale, several of them if we’re to be honest. However, I found the last (the one I guess we are supposed to find the biggest shock) to be something of a letdown. Perhaps it’s just me but I saw it coming a mile off and it left the final section of the book, while still solidly suspenseful at heart, a tad disappointing.

“It’s women of that kind – women and men – who are responsible for nine tenths of human suffering. Evil is rare. I’m inclined to think it’s a pathological phenomenon. Indifference, that’s what is terrible…”

I’ll confess that I don’t know a great deal about Anthony Berkeley, beyond the fact he was an influential crime writer and later a critic, but I have come across comments that suggest he was something of a misogynist, and that this characteristic can be discerned in Trial and Error. To tell the truth, I can’t say I was especially aware of this

– mild spoiler alert


I guess this is as a result of the choice and depiction of Todhunter’s victim. While I do feel the reasoning behind the pick was pretty weak and just barely convincing, I don’t buy the notion that it’s driven by this particular prejudice


– end of mild spoiler alert

This was my first Berkeley novel and I’ve got another half dozen titles by him on my shelf still to be read, including two written under his Francis Iles pseudonym. I’ve been led to believe he’s generally regarded highly for his innovative touches and  pushing at the boundaries of crime and detective fiction and I think this novel offers some strong arguments in favor of that assessment. Is it a good introduction to the author? Under the circumstances, I’ll have to leave that to others to say, at least until I’ve dipped a little deeper into his oeuvre myself.

Riding the High Country

We submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘cigarette’ category:

This entry was posted in 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt, Anthony Berkeley, Columbo, Courtroom, England. Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to TRIAL AND ERROR (1937) by Anthony Berkeley

  1. Colin says:

    Reblogged this on Riding the High Country and commented:
    This is another of those occasions when my friend Sergio has been kind enough to allow me a platform to put my thoughts on a piece of classic mystery/crime fiction. Follow the link here to read them in full, and have a good look around Sergio’s ever excellent site while you’re there.

  2. tracybham says:

    Very nice review, Colin, and this sounds like a very good book. The premise sounds good anyway, but I love a Columbo-type story.

  3. I’ve acquired a few Berkeley books, though I’ve yet to read them. He’s an author that I’m really looking forward to tackling. It sounds like this is another to seek out.

    Colin, you really should spin off another site devoted to GAD. You always have great comments to make, and I’d love to see some Best Of lists by you. Hats off to Sergio for hosting you, but you have an audience looking for more.

  4. TomCat says:

    I very much liked Trial and Error and loved one particular scene towards the end, but yeah, not the best place to start with when you’re new to Berkeley. You might have appreciated the book more had you been more familiar with his writing.

    Personally, I would recommend the marvelous Jumping Jenny, which is my favorite and a better play on the Fallible Detective gambit than The Poisoned Chocolates Case.

  5. Great review! I love everything I’ve read by Berkeley – I think he tends to play with the genre which is always satisfying.

  6. I agree with your characterization of Anthony Berkeley as innovative and clever. When he was at the top of his game, Berkeley was as good as Agatha Christie.

    • JJ says:

      I’m gonna upset some folks here and say that when he was at the top of his game, Berkeley was better than Christie…I consider Berkeley’s best three novels (Poisoned Chocolates, Malice Afore, Piccadilly Murder) to be better than Christie’s top 3 (And Then, Peril, Evil Under).

      Of course, Christie was waaaay more consistent and far easier to read, and produced far more far better books just below her best than Berkeley, who spins and dives and climbs and dives again all over the place in terms of quality. No doubt Chrisite had the essentials of this type of writing firm entrenched in her soul, but so did Berkeley — he just chose to challenge them more, and the result would tend to be something of a slave to the intent.

    • Thanks for that George – what with so many great authors in the genre from the 20s and 30s, great thst Betkeley is still remembered .

  7. JJ says:

    Also, great work, Colin — you don’t even need another blog, you could just put these on RtHC…many other people have far less focussed bogs, and I reckon people could cope with you talking about two whole separate things.

    • Well, I certainly agree that Fedora is not really worthy 😀 On thr other hand, have you seen how high the average number of comments per post is at Riding? Purity has its virtues!!!

  8. Pingback: 2017 Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Wrap-up | Tipping My Fedora

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