Review: TRIAL AND ERROR by Anthony Berkeley

Published by Arcturus Crime Classics

ISBN: 978 1 84858 455 6

Arcturus Crime Classics have the worthy ambition to republish some of the brilliant writers from the 1920s and 1930s, the “golden age” of crime writing. The trouble is, of course, many people will not have heard of Anthony Berkeley and other people from his period. Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, GK Chesterton and others rather squeezed out all the rest. So first a short introduction to him.

I have mentioned Anthony Berkeley before, when I was talking about Francis Iles. Anthony Berkeley was one of the pseudonyms of Anthony Berkeley Cox, ABC, as was Francis Iles. He was a very successful writer in the 1920s and 30s, and became one of the founder members of the detection club, along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Baroness, Orczy and others.

In TRIAL AND ERROR. The author provides the reader with a rather fascinating situation. You can forget any conventions of a crime or mystery thriller. At no time is the reader confused about the identity of the murderer. In fact, the murderer is given on almost the first page. Almost. Reading from chapter 1, we find: 

“When Mr Lawrence Todhunter learned from his doctor that he was suffering from an aortic aneurysm, and must not expect to live for more than a few months, his first feeling had been one of incredulity.

“ ‘Well, how old are you?’ asked the doctor, seeing his unbelief.

“ ‘51’, said Mr Todhunter, buttoning his shirt again over his bony chest

“ M‘Exactly. And you’ve never been very fit.”

“ ‘Of late years,’ agreed Mr Todhunter solemnly, ‘No, certainly not.’

“ The doctor swung his stethoscope. ‘Well, what can you expect? Your blood pressure’s been too high for years. If you hand’t followed my directions so carefully, you’d have been dead long ago.’ The doctor, an old friend, spoke with what seemed to Mr Todhunter unseemly callousness.”

Having had this rather shocking diagnosis, Mr Todhunter was left with the question of what to do with his remaining months. He started to think about what he should do to leave the world a better place. Over the course of a few pages Berkeley leads us through Todhunter’s thought processes. From marvellous achievements, which were unlikely to be attained, to more prosaic ambitions. At the time there was a certain fascist leader in Germany, whose removal would be of benefit to the world, Mr Todhunter believed. But he was persuaded that a political assassination could be a little troublesome for him. However, there were obviously unpleasant people closer to home as well – perhaps he could remove one of them?

And here begins the story, Mr Todhunter decided that he should remove an unpleasant person who did nothing for the greater good of society. This would, he felt, be a suitable memorial to his life. His resolution is confirmed and then thwarted with his first victim in a delicious turn of events, and he puts off his plans until suddenly he meets another vile person whose removal would add to the sum total of human happiness. He is committed and goes ahead with care to ensure that he leaves no clues for the police. And it was a great success.

However, if a man decides and goes through with a murder, what then should he do when another man was arrested for that crime? Worse, at the trial he is convicted and sentenced to death – how can Mr Todhunter rescue the fellow? 

This is the core of the entire story. And it is superb, because Mr Todhunter now has to prove his own guilt to the satisfaction of a doubtful police force which is content to have arrested and convicted, the person whom they believe committed the crime. When Mr Todhunter claims to have performed the act himself, they are utterly unbelieving. All of which leaves Mr Todhunter feeling quite bemused.

This is a delightful book. It is well written, it is blackly, humorous and, at the core of it, it is quite a strong indictment of the style of policing in his period.

Absolutely superb book brilliantly republished and highly recommended.

3 Responses to “Review: TRIAL AND ERROR by Anthony Berkeley”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    Not a fan of the genre. But, every now and then…


  2. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Murder – not my favourite subject. How about you?


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