Trial and Error (Anthony Berkeley)

By Anthony Berkeley

First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton; US, Doubleday, 1937

Blurb (UK)

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Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Sensation!  A man sets out to commit murder – in the abstract.  What worries him is that when he has done it ‘in the concrete’ Scotland Yard flatly refuses to believe him.  We are not giving away any more of this extraordinary tour-de-force.

‘Trial and Error’ is not in the very least like any other story with a murder in it that you have ever read.


Blurb (US)

Anthony Berkeley has written another of his classic novels of murder.  This is the story of little Mr. Lawrence Todhunter who decided that before his death he would make one final, useful gesture and eliminate from the scene the most obnoxious person he could find.  He shot Jean Norwood, famous actress manager, and was greatly pleased at the manner in which he carried it off.  Here, he felt, was the truly perfect crime, but when Vincent Palmer was arrested for Jean’s murder he hurried to Scotland Yard and confessed his guilt.

Berkeley - Trial and Error US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

The police had an iron-clad case against Vincent and Mr. Todhunter now found himself in the amazing situation of having to do detective work to prove himself guilty of murder and save an innocent man.  What the outcome of this unparalleled situation is, the reader must discover for himself, but he may rest assured that the ingenious climax will surprise him beyond all expectation.

Not only is this a delightful character study of that delightful gentleman, Mr. Todhunter, but it is also so cleverly constructed a story that the reader is never prepared for what is to happen next.

My review

“If one goes out to commit murder one can hardly expect easy situations afterwards,” reflects Mr. Todhunter halfway through Berkeley’s classic.  Not only must Mr. Todhunter, having discovered that “the greatest good a man could do is to eliminate a selected evildoer whose death must fulfil the condition of changing misery into happiness for a larger or smaller group of persons,” first find the unfortunate individual, but (after a false start) having committed the murder, prove himself guilty of the murder of Jean Norwood.  It is difficult to put a new wrinkle in the judge’s wig, but Mr. Berkeley, ever a successful experimenter, has achieved it—and the result can only be called superb.  The clues our old friend Mr. Chitterwick, consulted by Mr. Todhunter, discovers are masterly, including a lovely one of the oil on a gun; the humour and characterisation are worthy of the author to whom the book is dedicated; and the twist at the end, although not new for Berkeley, is nothing short of genius.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Sir Sydney Alfred Smith, 11th September 1937):

The man with only six months to live is not new in fiction.  Less than a month ago in Mr. F.L. Lacey’s new book such a man determined to employ his peculiar advantages by ridding the world of a tyrannical dictator: he succeeded, but the moral of the story was little Peterkin’s “What good came of it at last?”  The hero of Trial and Error, foreseeing this difficulty, deliberately rejects Hitler and Mussolini, and sets out to find a malevolent despot in a narrower sphere – a sphere less suited to the satirist, perhaps, but more to the detective story writer.  Mr. Todhunter determines to murder – in the name of humanity – first a newspaper office dictator, who escapes him, and then a wholly heartless actress and breaker-up of innocent homes.

The trials and errors in Mr. Todhunter’s story are many, but he succeeds brilliantly at last, if his success is not exactly what he first intended.  Of all the trials the most extraordinary is the second of two trials for murder, in neither of which is justice unerring.  Mr. Todhunter is charged with murder in a civil action in which he himself virtually instructs the prosecution.  It is admirable farce.  The reader may possibly feel that the author, who, like most of the better detective story writers today, is attempting to escape the rigid conventionality of his genre, started his book with a slightly more serious, if not actually satirical, intention, but let the humour of his situation run away with him.  Even so it is first-class reading, and the detection, most unconventional of all, is both enthralling in itself and a good take-off of the sort of thing that, among others, Roger Sheringham used to be so good at.


Observer (Torquemada, 19th September 1937):


“Anthony Berkeley” has too much starved us of his mental food in the last couple of years; now he makes bulky amends to the extent of over five hundred pages, and we are by no means surfeited.  He has always shown a freakish and attractive sense of humour in his crime stories, and this has not deserted him in Trial and Error, although he has chosen to strike out a line quite different from that of his previous work and different, too, save in a few well-worn details, from that of anyone else.  It is, as I say, a long book (I had almost written one long gigantic and grim jest), yet the interest is sustained with steady intensification to the end.  That end is a condemned cell, and yet the author manages to stage the best joke of all on this unpromising set.  The story of Mr. Todhunter’s passion for altruistic crime, and its unexpected results, give a chance for the exhibition of vivid and unflattering pictures, almost in Rowlandson’s vein, of the contrasted worlds of Journalism, Stage, and Law; and there are a few flirts of the brush at politicians.  Detection plays only a small part; our chief detective interest, indeed, lies in a study of the art of planting false clues.  Unorthodox though it be, and even in the regretted absence of Roger Sheringham, it would not surprise me if Trial and Error, with its coloured writing and piquant characterisation, proved to be one of the considerable successes of the Autumn season.


Sat R of Lit (6th November 1937, 40w):

A brilliant idea (discover it for yourself) and expertly handled, but there are moments when it becomes a bit tedious.  For adepts.


Books (Will Cuppy, 7th November 1937, 360w):

Trial and Error is easily the most entertaining crime literature in sight just now, as it was pretty sure to be, seeing that Mr. Berkeley is the author of The Poisoned Chocolates Case, The Silk Stocking Murders and ten other bafflers and that he has laid himself out this time to produce something still more excellent.


NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 14th November 1937, 270w):

Ingenious and highly entertaining novel.


The Times:

Mr. Berkeley has once again performed that increasingly difficult feat of giving a new twist to the murder story, and as usual he keeps a surprise card up his sleeve until the last moment.


Daily Sketch:

When a really excellent literary cake is offered by some eccentric philanthropist this book will take it.  It is the supreme merit of The New Arabian Nights and other fantastic works of a similar nature, that their authors turn the fantastic into vivid reality.  Mr. Berkeley has this quality developed fortissimo…  It is not only in the dumble-jumble of the plot that I take—and sincerely hope that you also will take—an unbounded pleasure.  It is also in the unfailing humour of our delightful Mr. Todhunter…  I describe this book as a new experiment in modern fiction which I am eminently grateful not to have missed.


The Evening Standard (Howard Spring):

He has given us more than a good book; one that does much to lift from crime fiction the charge that it has nothing to offer to an educated and critical palate.


Book Society News:

A plot so paradoxical that even the late lamented Father Brown might have quailed before it.


The Sunday Times (Milward Kennedy):

Anthony Berkeley is the supreme master not of the ‘twist’ but of the ‘double-twist’.  He has long been in the very front rank of detective writers; in Trial and Error, a book which shows that there is no difference of genus between a novel and a detective novel, he is something more…the characters are brilliantly drawn, the legal peculiarities are convincingly handled, and the nightmarish logic of the plot destroys all suspicion of absurdity.  I read the story with delighted avidity.


The News Chronicle (Sylvia Lynd):

Mr. Berkeley’s ingenuity is superb.  It is lucky for us all from every point of view that he follows the calling of a novelist and not of a criminal.



A superb display of ingenuity, mingled with satirical humour.


Glasgow Herald:

A riot of Gilbertian humour.  It has added not a little to the gaiety of the thriller world.


Saturday Review:

The best and most original of this season’s detective stories…a very clever and skilfully worked out plot that provides delightfully amusing reading.


The Book Society:

A tour de force.


Trial and Error was chosen by the following important provincial newspapers as their Book of the Month for September 1937: Manchester Evening Chronicle, Yorkshire Telegraph, Newcastle Evening Chronicle, North-Eastern Gazette, Star (Yorkshire).