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.