Friday, 22 May 2009

Forgotten Book - Trial and Error


Following up the ‘Forgotten Authors’ panel at Crimefest, my entry for Patti Abbot’s series of Forgotten Books is the novel which I said, in answer to a question from the floor, I would most like to see reprinted. In fact there are lots of them, but this is definitely a good one. It is Trial and Error by Anthony Berkeley.

The set-up is brilliant. Little Mr Todhunter is terminally ill. So he decides to make one final gesture, committing an ‘altruistic murder’ by killing the most obnoxious person he can find. He shoots Jean Norwood, ‘famous actress manager’, and believes he has committed the perfect crime. The snag is that an innocent person is charged by the police with Jean’s murder, and the police seem to have an ‘iron-clad’ case. So Mr Todhunter has to turn detective to prove himself guilty of murder and save an innocent life.

This is Berkeley’s finest books, widely regarded as a Golden Age classic – yet at Crimefest, very few people seemed to be familiar with it. This is sad, because Berkeley’s cleverness and cynical wit make Trial and Error a unique piece of work. On publication, the book aroused much debate because of a legal point – and in my edition, a green Penguin, Berkeley justifies his interpretation of English law in a way that seems to me to be pretty convincing (mind you, I have never practised criminal law…)

Berkeley dedicated the book to P.G. Wodehouse, and his earlier fiction reflects Wodehouse’s influence, but by the time this novel was published in 1937, his writing was truly distinctive. It is sad, and astonishing, that within a mere two more years, his career as a crime novelist was at an end.

11 comments:

Randy Johnson said...

This one sounds interesting. I've jotted it down on my list and it will be looked for on the used book sites

vegetableduck said...

I prefer this one to his better-known, earlier two Iles books, personally, but it is far less celebrated, perhaps because it was not officially an Iles?

David Cranmer said...

Now that is an intriguing plot. And after doing a Google search I see he wrote under the name Francis Iles and wrote extensively for the Guardian paper.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It seems to me that when younger writers/readers read older books it's always the more pulpy ones.

R. T. said...

I am fascinated with the many bloggers who are contributing to the Friday postings of forgotten authors, and your contribution this week is another winner that whets my interest but at the same time irks the hell out of me because it will be so hard to find a copy of Berkeley's novel. Local community and university libraries are a dead-end (which is nothing new around here when looking for the golden oldies). The local used bookstores are also hopeless. So, it is on to the Internet where I hope to find TRIAL AND ERROR. Well, in spite of my constant frustration with finding forgotten books, I hope you will continue to share your lost treasures at your blog (which I much enjoy). Now, the online market search continues!

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments. Veggie Duck, I'm glad you share my enthusiasm for this book.I think those of you who track down a copy will be glad you did.

seanag said...

Frustrating though it may be, I'll enjoy the hunt for Trial and Error. Great excuse to haunt my favorite used bookstore!

Philip said...

I have the House of Stratus edition of Trial and Error, published in 2001. HoS specialises in lovely softcover editions of works of yore for the price of a pulp paperback. I think they put out some dozen or so of Berkeley's works, as also Innes, Bentley, Freeman, et al. I haven't looked at their current list for a while, but R.T. and others on the hunt might find it worth a look.

Anonymous said...

In America, you can try the Inter-Library-Loan (ILL) system, whereby your local library searches a network of other public & university libraries -- if another library has the book, it sends it to your library & you can check it out. I've had excellent results, & it's free (though some libraries may assess a nominal charge).

"Trial And Error" is well worth whatever trouble it may take to find it -- truly brilliant, & great fun -- best of luck to all who are seeking it.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Anonymous. The library system sounds terrific.

seana said...

Yes, thanks, anonymous. I haven't even exhausted my local resources on this one yet.