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.

Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles

Malice Aforethought
Francis Iles (aka. Anthony Berkeley)
Originally Published 1931

And so I reach another milestone for the blog. This marks my hundredth review since starting the blog back in October last year and I knew I wanted to pick something special to mark the occasion. Given my love of inverted crime novels it could only be a matter of time before I tackled one of the biggest titles in the sub-genre, Malice Aforethought.

This novel written by Anthony Berkeley Cox under the pseudonym Frances Iles was not the first inverted mystery to be written but it did play a significant role in popularizing the psychological, inverted approach to mystery fiction. In addition there is a style of storytelling employed that is quite distinctive, leading to other stories that adopt a similar approach being described as Ilesian. In short, we are dealing with a significant work here.

Malice Aforethought introduces us to Dr. Bickleigh, a country doctor who has decided that he wants to murder his wife. In the course of the first few chapters we get a sense of both his and his wife’s respective characters and the specific events that have led him to feel that way. It should be said that while he comes to this conclusion there will be a long way to go before he actually commits the murder but this thought, conceived after being bossed around at a tennis party his wife has organized, represents a shift in his thinking and the start of a new, dark path for him.

The opening chapters allow us to start to build a psychological portrait of the man and the forces that are shaping him. We learn more about the nature of his marriage to Julia, his desires and some of the complexes that he possesses. As effective as those chapters are, I think his character is best developed in his interactions with others as we see the way he treats some of the villagers rather than in the more explanatory passages.

Bickleigh is an intriguing protagonist because while he does some horrible stuff and is plainly not a nice man, there are points at which you might feel quite sympathetic towards him. This is a man who is longing for something his life cannot give him, in part because of his limited means and social standing and who in marrying upwards has placed himself in a position where he feels and is made to feel inferior to his domineering wife.

In many ways Julia is an even more interesting psychological portrait than Bickleigh because the narration is not as sympathetic to her character, forcing the reader to make their own judgments about some of her actions. We may question why she married Bickleigh in the first place, how she feels about him at the point the story begins, what she is looking for from life and what she is really intending when he first asks her for a divorce. Like her husband, our feelings about her may shift at points and even now I am not entirely sure how I feel about her.

Many of the other women in Bickleigh’s life are similarly hard to pin down. Madeleine, the young woman who has just moved to the Hall at the start of the novel, is also hard to get a definitive read on. Often her actions seem to contradict themselves, sometimes seeming to encourage Bickleigh’s interest while at others pushing him away. And then there’s Ivy… It strikes me that while Bickleigh may be an interesting protagonist, it is the women he is drawn to and their responses to him that I find to be one of the most interesting aspects of the novel.

But to return to Bickleigh, the first half of the novel sees him conceive and execute a plan to kill his wife. Knowing that he will be responsible, our interest then will be not only understanding why he will do this but how it shall be done. The second half of the novel focuses on the consequences of that act both legally and also in terms of the way his wife’s death will be interpreted.

I found both parts of this novel to make for compelling reading and enjoyed seeing how Bickleigh’s plans would unfold. His plans are, on the face of it, quite ingenious and while there are a few small mistakes made, this only builds anticipation for the courtroom scene towards the end of the novel. The reader is likely going to have an idea of the issues with his defence that will be exploited. Instead the author subverts some of those expectations, delivering an ending that is surprising even when you know a surprise is coming. It is done quite masterfully and I think that ending is probably the greatest reason that this novel stands out as a seminal work in the sub-genre.

So, after saying all that surely this work must stand as my favorite inverted mystery? Not quite, though it comes close. I was certainly gripped and highly entertained, devouring the whole thing in a single sitting. Bickleigh is certainly an interesting protagonist and I enjoyed learning what drove him and where he would go but his plan, while certainly audacious, is also quite technical and much of his plan remains entirely in his control.

It is certainly a very satisfying adventure though and I certainly think it deserves to be held up as a classic of the crime genre. Unfortunately it currently seems to be out of print though apparently Macmillan will be releasing a collector’s hardcover in 2019. I am certain I’ll be picking up another copy to add to my permanent collection.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Features a courtroom scene (Where)