Trial and Error by Anthony Berkeley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"'Dear, dear!' said Mr. Chitterwick. 'Dear, dear, dear! Dear, dear!'"
One of the strengths of Anthony Berkeley's Trial and Error (1937) is the plot's ability to astound the reader. Since the basic setup of the story is surprisingly unusual I am not offering any synopsis, even the most rudimentary one. For full enjoyment of this wonderful novel I urge the reader not to peek at any summaries of the plot. The readers should allow Mr. Berkeley, one of the old masters of British mystery, to hit them repeatedly with the unexpected.
I love the novel almost as much now as I did in the early 1970s, when I enjoyed it for the first time. It is a mandatory read for everyone who - like this reviewer - despises clichés in literature. These days I am not eager to read any mainstream mysteries, crime novels, court dramas, etc., particularly the bestsellers: they are almost always totally paint-by-number jobs, where the superficial details of the story may vary yet the deep structure does not deviate from one of a limited set of reusable patterns that have been proven to sell.
Trial and Error is different. The author's main tool is the sophisticated, multidimensional inversion of motifs and patterns. In a run-of-the-mill court drama the police try to pin the crime on an individual, who hires the defense team to avoid getting convicted. Berkeley inverts this pattern: it is the defense who valiantly try to prove that their client is guilty while the police resist and work hard to show the defendant's innocence. Further, in a court of law a person is supposed to tell the truth to avoid perjury. In Berkeley's inversion perjury is needed to tell the truth. While in crime literature murders are evil acts, and murderers are the scum of the earth, Berkeley presents a noble-intentioned murderer and an altruistic, good murder. The death of a character who "truly needs killing" becomes a major inconvenience to the potential killer. The author even inverts the usual paradigm of the doctor-patient relationship, but I am unable to elaborate on it without spoiling the plot. The fun and beauty of inverting the clichés seems inexhaustible in this novel. Even the requisite ending plot twists do not turn the usual way.
The writing is uniformly superb: the precise yet colorful prose paints a vivid portrait of the era eighty years ago and the subtle, Britishly understated humor sparkles. Is Trial and Error a perfect mystery then? Hardly, in one or two places the author relies a bit too much on coincidence and some components of the denouement seem a bit improbable. Still, these minor flaws cannot change the fact that the novel is far, far above anything produced by authors such as, say, Grafton, Grisham, or Kellerman.
And finally - for people who read "whodunits" in order to find "who has done it" - will we learn who the killer was? Yes, we will. Does it make any difference? Absolutely not; it is completely irrelevant to the enjoyment and the power of the story. In fact, I think - that true to the main concept underlying the novel - the truth is not what counts. It is the author's ability to negate and invert the tired and worn clichés of the genre that lifts this book to the almost-masterpiece status.
Four and a quarter stars.
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