Trial and Error by Anthony Berkeley

Trial and Error
Anthony Berkeley
Originally Published 1937

Trial and Error is a novel by the author Anthony Berkeley, the author (albeit under another name) of the seminal inverted mystery Malice Aforethought. I had liked that novel although I found some elements to be a little disappointing and was keen to try out some of his other stories.

This is the story of Mr. Todhunter who has recently discovered that he has a terminal prognosis and is determined to do some good in the world. He raises the question of what he can do with some friends over dinner in a very hypothetical way and the suggestion comes back that he should rid the world of someone making it a worse place.

After discounting Hitler and Mussolini for logistical reasons as well as the sense that they would just be replaced by someone else he settles on the idea of removing someone doing harm on a much smaller scale. That person is a manager-actress whose romantic entanglements and professional jealousies have destroyed the lives of several people and who shows no signs of guilt or remorse.

Mr. Todhunter develops a plan and sets out, gun in hand, to kill her. After the deed is done he tries to arrange the scene to erase all signs of guilt and sets off on a long cruise with the hope of dying on his travels. He is distressed to learn that an innocent man has been identified as the killer and returns to England to convince the police of his own guilt.

Writing about this novel presents some challenges, particularly if you wish to avoid spoiling significant moments in the story. I am going to do my best to stay true to that goal which means that some thematic elements and writing choices will be left unexamined but hopefully, if you read the novel, you will understand why.

Structurally the book is split between a lengthy opening in which Todhunter formulates his plan and makes his move and the section detailing his actions after the fact. This split feels a little awkward, particularly if you are primarily interested in this as a mystery novel rather than for its darkly comedic elements and pieces of social and literary observation. I really enjoy Berkeley’s witty prose so this was no hardship for me but, like Malice Aforethought, some readers will wish he’d hurry up and produce a body.

My feeling is that anyone approaching this novel hoping for a good puzzle or thriller is likely going to find it a frustrating read because it will become apparent that the author is not focused on those elements. Rather I think it should be read as a playful swipe at the conventions of the genre and that crime authors as a whole had fallen into. One of my favorite of these observations occurs when Todhunter conducts a literary study of crime novels to help him devise his plan and realizes that if he leaves no witnesses and no evidence then he will be certain to be caught in a detective novel.

There are plenty of examples later in the novel where Berkeley undermines the sanctity of the physical evidence, twisting it to show that it is far less reliable a gauge of guilt than writers would have you believe. These ideas are often quite clever and yet they are also quite awkwardly phrased to encourage the reader to interpret them in a particular way that the author will later try to twist. One example is the business involving two identical pistols which is clever and yet feels a little overworked.

A large part of the problem relates to the characterization of Mr. Todhunter, our would-be killer. Berkeley devotes a lot of time early in the novel to establishing his motives and thinking and yet as the story progresses the reader is given less and less information about his psychology will likely feel that they know him less as a result. This is necessary for Berkeley’s overall plan for the structure of his novel but it also means that his behavior seems to become increasingly erratic.

In the end I think the story stitches together quite convincingly but for much of the novel Todhunter’s actions seem to be irrational. The reader is required to take it on trust that every action will make sense in the end and to have patience as the narrative takes its time to reach that point, seeming to lack a clear sense of direction and theme as it enters its final third.

The way Berkeley structures this story, the themes only really hit home at the culmination of the novel but the tale seems to meander rather than race towards that conclusion. JJ had a wonderful turn of phrase in his review in which he said that this book would have been better had it been written by Francis Iles, one of Berkeley’s own pseudonyms. While that may sound ridiculous on the face of it, I think he is absolutely right. The problem is that this book wants to tell one particular type of story when a more ‘Ilesian’ structure would suit it better.

Berkeley does try to provide the reader with a twist in the final pages but it feels predictable and underwhelming, particularly when compared with some of the alternatives he could have devised. He wants to explore Todhunter’s nobility and while I think that provides an interesting starting point for a broader rumination of the nature of justice, I felt it was ultimately a little anticlimactic.

In spite of that, I did find the process of reading Trial and Error to be enjoyable, particularly in that slow first third of the novel. I thought the premise of the story was quite delightful and I find Berkeley’s prose to be a pleasure to read. While it may not have been everything I had hoped for, on balance I had a good time with it and look forward to exploring some of his other works.

14 thoughts on “Trial and Error by Anthony Berkeley

  1. I loved this one when I read it ages ago, so I’ve been surprised about the lukewarm reactions it has received on people’s blogs. But I can see how elements that I loved, might be less great for others – so I’ll let you off! Hope it doesn’t put you off trying more Berkeley.

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    1. I did have a really good time with it but I think it does have a problem in that you can’t talk about who will appreciate it clearly without spoiling the end. I love his prose style and appreciated the ideas he was playing with but I do think it is an inventive book that is not altogether successful.


    1. I really have not seen much Columbo though I do plan on doing so at some point soon. I was put off it as a kid by being told that it wasn’t a real detective show because you know the killer. Given how much I have come to disagree with that view I wish I hadn’t listened but I guess it just means I have more to look forward to watching…

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      1. I am pretty sure I only saw the Shatner ones but I can’t say I have much memory of them (beyond automatically thinking them awesome because I was a huge Trek fan).

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      2. Yes, I envy your getting to see Columbo for the first time! 😉

        I should probably do a Columbo post sooner or later, but I recommend that you start with the early ones, especially Murder by the Book or Death Lends a Hand. Well-plotted, well-paced, and very clever.

        Columbo goes through some interesting different kinds of stories, including Freeman-esque (“Old-Fashioned Murder,” “Any Old Port in a Storm”) and Croftsian (“Mind Over Mayhem,” “Swan Song”) plots; there are even Christie (“Last Salute to the Commodore”) and Carr (“Columbo Goes to the Guillotine”) pastiches! Just thinking purely of plotting, there are lots of brilliant alibis and detective-work.

        Do take a look; TomCat has also posted about some of his favorites, so he’s a good reference. I’d love to know your thoughts!

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      3. Thanks for the suggestions for the best way to start out and to check out TomCat’s blog for further suggestions. I will definitely share my thoughts when I do watch it.

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      4. All this discussion of Columbo has inspired me to start my own series of episode reviews. I will try to put the first one (for the two pre-series movies and Season One) up this weekend. I’ll discuss the setup of each episode – who the killer and victim are, the motive for the murder – but no spoilers for the endings, of course! People who haven’t watched the series may still want to avoid these posts, but I hope those who have will like them.

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  2. Thanks for the review, as I enjoy Anthony Berkeley very much – and I seem to be running out his novels to read. ☹️ I should give one of his inverted mystery novels a go…

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