What’s in a name? When you’re dealing with GAD authors, quite a lot, which is why I’ve read 71 books by Agatha Christie but have yet to pick up any by Mary Westmacott, or why so much attention is paid to the four books Barnaby Ross published in his two-year career. So when I say this Anthony Berkeley novel would be far better were it by Frances Iles, you will hopefully appreciate my point. I thought it worth looking at the genre’s arch convention-challenger — one of the four most important male authors of his era, according to some attractive genius — for the 1937 Crimes of the Century and have come away somewhat confused, bemused, muddled, harried, and generally all a-fluster.
Under (two-thirds of) his given name, Berkeley wrote a series of detective novels that fearlessly and successfully challenged the tropes and conventions that came out of the Golden Age long before they even were conventions: overturning solutions, up-ending his amateur sleuth, and raising plenty of hackles with the disdain with which he was treating this not-yet-sacred cow. But far from decrying the detective novel, Berkeley was simply an innovator ahead of his time who was pushing the rules to the very limit to see what could be achieved; not all of them were successful — there’s one I’d happily wipe from the memory of existence — but he wrote one (possibly two) of the ten finest novels the genre has produced, so must have been getting something right.
One of those two masterpieces was published under the name Frances Iles, with which identity Berkeley produced a handful of inverted mysteries (giving you the guilty party in the first chapter, and watching it all go wrong from there) that, playing the conventions from the very get-go, proceeded to push the boundaries of the genre even further back. And so when he attempts this with Trial and Error under his real name, it’s difficult not to feel that the flaws which hold it back would have been ameliorated somewhat if he’d come at it as Iles instead.
As I remember from my first reading, several years ago, the first half is hard yards; there’s no getting around this. Berkeley has a beautifully arch turn of phrase — some of the pure writing here is among the best he ever did — and a refreshingly modern attitude to the New Youth, politicians, women vs. ladies, and sundry other topics besides, and a delightful frankness that almost feels like an apology for how chuffing long it takes him to finally get to the point:
Mr. Todhunter’s personal feeling was that a nice juicy blackmailer would suit the bill best, but here again there are difficulties, for blackmailers are elusive creatures. Unlike almost any other person today, they seek no publicity. And if one asks one’s friend point-blank whether, by any chance, they are being blackmailed, they would almost certainly resent it.
We know upfront that the terminally ill Mr. Todhunter wishes to murder some deserving soul before he departs this mortal coil (shades of Iles there — well, okay, no, the full palette of Iles), but the selection of the victim — while enlivened at one point by one wonderful twist — is tedious in the extreme. A refreshingly blunt summation of the situation in Europe makes a bracing name-check of Hitler, Mussolini, and their hateful regimes, but then things slow down considerably. Only when the victim is set (somewhat closer to home), the deed done, and the wrong man arrested, do things pick up, as Todhunter must convince the police that they have the wrong person and he should in fact be arrested for the crime (“It’s a serious thing, you know, accusing yourself of murder,” he’s told by Chief Inspector Moresby at one point).
Cue Mr. Ambrose Chitterwick, in his third and final appearance in a Berkeley novel, now needed not so much for helping the police track down their man as much as helping their man convince the police that he is their man. And this is what Berkeley does so well: it’s clearly a pastiche of the detective novel — the killer pointing out the things that make him guilty, the police dismissing it as the wild speculation of an attention-hungy loon, and the amateur sleuth involved in trying to join the two in the middle. All the tell-tale clues are there: broken twigs, footprints, missing guns, etc, and seeing them skewed in the wrong direction is a hoot for those of us who’ve seen far too much emphasis put on this kind of thing in a straight novel of this type.
But, ugh, even with this inversion-inside-an-inversion, the text has a tendency to maunder, with a fair amount of what is written having a nugatory effect on the overall solution. This is where Iles would have tightened things up, and would have pushed this good, bold, and hugely influential novel (I can, right now, name eleven novels published after this that take this same setup and do exactly the same thing with it) into the realm of greatness. It’s amazing to think that Berkeley had been overturning tropes for pretty much his entire career, but it would be nice if a few more of those books were stone-cold classics. Not, really, that we should complain…
Karyn Reeves @ A Penguin a Week: Even though the story tended to ramble in places, and it is not always easy to follow the logic of Mr Todhunter’s actions, I found it a very enjoyable book to read, and entertaining from start to finish. With his courage, his fixity of purpose, and his unswerving adherence to his own moral code, Mr Todhunter makes a surprisingly endearing character, even though he is presented as something of a fusspot, given to worrying about his health and the timing of his afternoon tea.
Martin Edwards: Berkeley was here at the very top of his form, producing plot twist after plot twist with seemingly effortless skill. Yet within a couple of years, he had given up novel writing for good. He was a real loss to the genre. Some may argue that he was a writer of his time,but I think there’s something very contemporary about his best work, which makes it timeless.