Monday, February 10, 2014

Try Again

I just wanna say 夢かなえる
真実はいつも一つ それは TRY AGAIN
"Try Again" (倉木麻衣)

I just wanna say You can make your dreams come true
There's always only one truth Which is Try Again
"Try Again" (Kuraki Mai) 

It's been a while since the last post. But I'm still here! Just busy with things. And stuff. And other stuff.

Introducing Lawrence Todhunter, age 51. Retired, well off. He lives a quiet, some might say boring life. And he is going to die soon. A fatal heart disease confronts him with the fact he could have done something more meaningful with his life, and he intends to rectify that before he draws his last breath. He makes up his mind to do one last act for the sake of humanity: to exterminate the most harmful element he can find in society. To kill an evil person whose mere existence means a threat to society. He finds his target in Ms. Norwood, actress, and in general not a very kind person indeed. After the deed is done, Todhunter travels around the world, expecting to die during his trip. That is until he discovers that someone else has been arrested for the murder of Ms. Norwood. Hurriedly returning to the country, Todhunter has the strangely difficult task of proving his own guilt to save an innocent soul in Anthony Berkeley's Trial and Error.

Proving one's own guilt might sound strange as a concept, but it makes sense when you hear it's written by Anthony Berkeley, right?

The Poisoned Chocolates Case was an experiment in deduction: six person using six different methods to arrive at six different solutions for the same case. Jumping Jenny is basically a double inverted mystery: we see the events leading up to a murder, and then we have a second crime-in-progress, with the detective Sheringham trying to make it seem the murder was a suicide. Trial and Error (which though featuring a familiar face, is not part of the Roger Sheringham series) in turn plays with the character roles in detective novels: it's the criminal himself who wants to proof his own guilt (and he has surprisingly much trouble with that, despite having secured what he thought was decisive evidence), it's the criminal himself who wants to get himself hanged and it's the criminal himself who gets a trial running to convict himself.

And I love Trial and Error for that. Berkeley clearly loves playing on a meta-level with the detective fiction genre, turning and twisting familar tropes and character types around to mess with the reader. And it's never just a gimmick, because Berkeley can also write and plot like the best, and his novels are always a treat to read. Trial and Error is funny as a concept, but it is also a good detective novel. It's fun seeing Todhunter retracing his own steps on the night of the murder, looking for evidence he might have left, just like a detective. Heck, Todhunter is a detective, and a criminal at the same time i this novel. But the reader might be surprised when it's revealed in the end how many hints were hidden in the story. Berkeley makes use of a lot of gimmicks in his novels, but he's always more than just gimmicks.

In general though, I'm not a big fan of Berkeley's characters though. Of course, I have just read a couple of his novels, so I might have been just unlucky, but Roger Sheringham for example has a knack for behaving too much as the arrogant masterdetective (which he isn't exactly). Jumping Jenny had him messing around with the crime scene for example because he felt he had the right to judge something fair or not. Todhunter playing judge, jury and executioner is not unlike Sheringham actually, but the moral implications of his role aren't really explored. Partly because the victim is depicted as a fairly evil woman, which is something Berkeley excelled in: depicting bad women. There's always a distinct misogynistic tone to be found in his novels, I was told in a presentation on him and his works once, and now I have read more of his works, I have to admit that one can indeed feel it.

Like the other Berkeley novels I've read, Trial and Error is a great novel, which can be read perfectly on its own, but works even better as a piece of meta-fiction. It's also a lot less 'theoretical' than the other two, making it much more suitable for readers who find The Poisoned Chocolates Case a bit hard to get into.


  1. Trial and Error is perhaps my favorite inverted mystery, contending for that spot with Jumping Jenny, but, reputedly, Berkeley's personality was everything from admirable – ranging from misogyny to anti-Semitism (c.f. The Silk Stocking Murders).

    I remember reading Berkeley was also somewhat of a sadist and this could explain his cruel streak in his characterization, such as the disintegration of civility in Panic Party and Sheringam's triumphant failures as a master detective.

    And yet this is the same author who wrote the genteel, high-spirited The Layton Court Mystery, in which two friends investigate a murder for the sake of the game with a plot (apperantly) modeled on Milne's The Red House Mystery. Berkeley even dedicated the book to his father (like Milne did).

    1. Well, I'll keep on reading him anyway, though I don't think I could handle marathon-reading his novels...

  2. I think Berkeley states that he deliberately set out to write about an incompetent and unpleasant detective, and when the public took the character seriously, he had to tone down the unpleasantness. I don't think you can attribute the attitudes of the character to the author. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a piece of verse concerning the insults Holmes heaped on his predecessors Dupin and Inspector Lecoq in "A Study in Scarlet" in which he justifies himself by stating that "The doll and its maker are never identical." If it is good enough for Doyle, it is good enough for me.

    In any event, I do not require of my artists that they be good men, only that they be good artists.

    1. True, the work doesn't equal maker, but there's probably something of him/her in the work. I too think that individual characters in a work don't represent the writer per se, but things like the misogynistic tone in Berkeley's works are something I doubt he added just 'to add some color' to his novels.

      But like I said, I love his detective novels and I do plan to read more of his work.