Anthony Berkeley – Trial and Error (1937)

Crime novelist Anthony Berkeley (born Anthony Berkeley Cox in 1893) was one of the key crime writers of the interwar period, producing books both as Anthony Berkeley and as Francis Iles. Many of his books innovated the crime genre, such as The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) in which the members of an amateur crime detective club each put forward unique and plausible solutions to the same crime.[1] In Before the Fact (1932, written as Francis Iles) the female protagonist becomes gradually convinced that her husband is planning to murder her.

Berkeley’s main sleuth was Roger Sheringham, an amateur detective and author. It was common, indeed expected, for interwar crime writers to have a regular detective character, and Berkeley wrote ten novels starring Sheringham. His crime novels that do not include Sheringham, however, allowed him more flexibility in terms of plot development. This is also true of Trial and Error, which Berkeley wrote in the mid-1930s. Trial and Error does feature other characters from the Berkeley crime universe, such as the bumbling Ambrose Chitterwick who also stars in The Poisoned Chocolates Case and The Piccadilly Murder (1929).

The plot of Trial and Error is as typically convoluted and rewarding as can be expected from Berkeley, including a twist in the very final sentence of the book. Like other crime novels by Berkeley and his fellow writers, the plot is based on a historical crime, in this instance a case from 1864.[2] In Trial and Error, Lawrence Todhunter is told he is going to die of an aortic aneurysm at some point soon – as long as he does not exert himself, he may live another year, but anything that increases his heartrate may kill him.

Todhunter asks his friends a seemingly hypothetical question – what would they advise a man who has only a few months left to live, to do? The unanimous response is that such a man should kill someone – after all, the death penalty would form no deterrent. Although Todhunter at first entertains thoughts of killing Hitler or Mussolini (the latter of which was seen as a bigger threat in 1937)[3]; he eventually decides to kill an ‘ordinary’ person who makes the lives of those around them miserable. He finds his victim in Miss Jean Norwood, a stage actress who seduces married men and then financially drains them.

The selection of Miss Norwood as the victim and her eventual successful murder takes up less than the first half of Trial and Error. The second half of the book is concerned with the aftermath – and this is where it copies the historical case. After the murder Todhunter decides to go on a world tour, expecting to peacefully die somewhere en route. Several weeks into his trip, however, he is horrified to find out that another man has been arrested for the murder of Jean Norwood. Todhunter speeds back to England to prove his guilt – but he has been so thorough in hiding his tracks that there is no material evidence to convict him, and the police do not believe his confession.

With the other man tried and found guilty, Todhunter has very little time to prevent the execution of an innocent man (the time between conviction and execution was traditionally only three weeks). Together with his friends, he comes up with a plan. One of his friends, a civil servant, sues Todhunter for the murder under civil law. Whilst the police controlled who would be prosecuted in a criminal court, anyone could bring a case to anyone else a civil court. Todhunter actively works with the prosecution’s legal team to make the case against him as strong as possible. They also ensure that the case gets plenty of press attention, which in turn leads to political debate. The execution of the previously convicted man is paused until Todhunter’s case is completed. At the end of the book, Todhunter is victorious – he gets found guilty of the murder and sentences to death, whilst the other man walks free.  

In Trial and Error, Todhunter’s impending aneurism not only provides the catalyst for the plot, but it is also an effective tool to ratchet up the tension throughout the narrative. During the trial, Todhunter is increasingly worried he may die before he is convicted, and his friends shelter him away from the media circus to keep him alive. The tight timelines of the criminal court case and execution also put the pressure on Todhunter, which of course in turn makes him more likely to suffer his aneurism.

But beyond the race to save a condemned man, Trial and Error raises some questions about the British justice system. The man who is originally convicted is innocent – the police have been able to provide motive and circumstantial evidence and the jury has made its decision based on that. When Todhunter returns to Britain and makes a full confession, the police are unwilling to believe him.[4] A miscarriage of justice is a very real possibility in this scenario. Because Todhunter is initially unable to provide any material evidence to back up his confession, he is disbelieved. Technical advances in policing have made physical evidence so important that even a genuine confession holds no weight.

Like other Berkeley books, such as The Poisoned Chocolates Case and Before the Fact, there is no direct connection between those who commit murder and those who get punished for it. Whereas other crime novelists such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie often ensured that their criminals were either killed or arrested at the end of the novel, Berkeley’s books are much more ambiguous. This critical stance at the British justice system is perhaps one of the reasons why Trial and Error has only been transferred to the screen once, in a 1958 BBC miniseries. Berkeley’s satire still raises uncomfortable questions about the robustness of Western justice systems.

[1] Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (London: HarperCollins, 2015), pp. 85-86

[2] Ibid., p. 360

[3] Anthony Berkeley, Trial and Error (London: Acturus, 2012), pp. 12-13

[4] Ibid., pp. 125-129