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.
19 thoughts on “#220: Trial and Error (1937) by Anthony Berkeley”
”…the first half is hard yards; there’s no getting around this.”
Precisely. It is because of this that I couldn’t finish the book. I often felt like shouting,”Get to the point !”
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Oh dear, I was hoping for this to get a top rating. There seems to be so few Berkeley books that are really worth reading. 😦
Depending on your definition of “worth” they’re pretty much all work reading, the exception being NBtT. For people with an interest in how the genre was established and grown, Berkeley is essential in seeing where key developments were challenged and so strengthened as a result. But if you want perfectly successful plots and ideas that always pay off in the best possible way…yeah, more than a few can be skipped!
Sorry to hear you didn’t like this one as much as I definitely enjoyed it and got thoroughly bamboozled along the way, even if it is not quite as good as Malice Aforethought.
Yeah, Malice Afore is a bloody masterpiece. Thinking I’ll reread that later in the year, and already very excited to encounter it again. This is good, but waaaaaay too slow. Iles would have done a much tighter job.
Been a couple of years since I read Trial and Error so don’t remember any slowness, but may well need to re-read it. The ending of Malice Aforethought is a masterpiece.
I’m just on Poisoned Chocolates (almost done) for the first time and it really is a masterwork. Cannot believe the level of invention going on at this early in the game! Really intrigued to read Trial and Error just to see how he handles it, but the Iles novels sound like a better place to start for this kind of subversion.
Your top of both the Berkeley and Iles oeuvre?
Well there are much fewer Iles novels and of those few not many are easily available. I loved both Before the Fact and Malice Aforethought but would recommend reading the latter first if you want the absolute best of the two.
As to Berkeley titles there are more of them but not read many of them but The Poisoned Chocolates Case and Trial and Error are my favourite to date.
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Thanks Kate, that’s brilliant.
Berkeley: Poisoned Chocolates
Iles: Malice Aforethought
Best of these: Probably TPCC, but I need to reread MA to be certain…it’s been a while 🙂
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Thanks JJ, Malice is now on my list.
It’s strange; this book actually came up at a dinner party I attended earlier this month. If you bring up the topic of “What would you do with your last six months of life?” it will probably be good for 15 or 20 minutes of animated conversation and the gratitude of your host. I mentioned this book in the context and said something to the effect of, “It’s not a gripping book, but the ideas in it are fascinating … more the kind of book you find yourself daydreaming about than the kind you’re longing to get back to reading.”
I think that’s a perfect summation. I love the idea, I really like a great deal of the expression, but the pacing makes it more like an episode from someone’s actual life rather than a gripping novel. Which may have been what Berkeley was aiming for, I guess, though his reasons for that may remain unknown…
It’s funny – you write these reviews were you slightly criticize a book, but you end up making me really want to read it (The Conjure Man Dies being another example – you probably shouldn’t have made The Red Widow Murders analogy, how can I resist?). The set up of this sounds interesting enough and I’ll put it on my potential purchase list.
I already have The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and I gather from other comments that I should pick up Malice Aforethought. Any other recommendations for getting my feet wet with Berkeley? Am I in danger of thinking his works are derivative, or will I be able to enjoy them without having to lean too heavily on the knowledge that he pioneered many of the techniques?
I’m aware that my tastes are particular, and someone coming from a slightly different perspective — Kate, for instance, who ain’t quite so puzzle-obsessed as I — will find a lot in what I deem borderline works like this and Conjure-Man. So if you’re intrigued enough to try…hopefully I’m doing something right.
As to Berkeley’s books, well…see, a well-read GAD fan like yourself will see so much of the pioneer in Berkeley that I honestly believe the flaws can be accepted more easily. TPCC and MA are plain masterworks, and a lot of his second string work is very good, like most of the rest of his Iles output and the other Chitterwick (dammit, the title eludes me). Mileage may vary, and perhaps leave Layton Court for much later…but I’d love to know what you make of any of his other works. I think he’ll tickle your fancy, I really do…
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An extremely interesting review. I like this book more than you do, but it’s certainly the case that most of Berkeley’s books were flawed in some way. But I’d say that was a sign of his ambition, which I find admirable in any writer. You never get the sameold sameold with AB.
The fact that it’s so difficult to pigeonhole what a Berkeley novel is tonally — contrasting with Christie, or Brand, or most other famous names from this era — is one of the things that makes him most compelling to me. I completely agree with you on his ambition, but I equally love how quickly he came to the tropes, completely grasped what they were about, and then stretched them to their limit while everyone else was still trying them on. Amazing, truly the man was a crime-writing genius.
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