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Authors: Anthony Berkeley

Trial and Error

BOOK: Trial and Error
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Trial and Error




Founder of the prestigious, and still flourishing, Detection Club, Anthony Berkeley Cox (1893-1971) was one of the most innovative crime writers of the so-called ‘golden age' and beyond. He used the pseudonyms Anthony Berkeley and Francis Iles, and in both guises he explored the psychology of crime.

This edition published in the UK by Arcturus Publishing Limited
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This edition published in Australia and New Zealand by Hinkler Books Pty Ltd
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Copyright © The Society of Authors 1937

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without written permission in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright Act 1956 (as amended). Any person or persons who do any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

ISBN 978-1-78212-802-1



“ ‘The sanctity of Human Life has been much exaggerated,' ” quoted Ferrers. “Just think what courage it took to say that, to a crowd of confirmed sentimentalists—professional sentimentalists, some of 'em.”

“And you believe it's true?” asked the Rev. Jack Denney.

“Of course it's true.”

“Ah well, I suppose it's part of your profession as a journalist to be cynical.” The clergyman smiled and sipped his port.

Ferrers smiled suavely back, touching the elegant bow of his black tie. He was not a journalist, unless the literary editor of one of London's oldest and most dignified literary weeklies could be so described; and he recognised the jibe hidden in the meiosis. He and Jack Denney were old antagonists.

“Just as it's part of your profession as a parson to be sentimental, Jack,” he returned provocatively.

“Perhaps, perhaps.” The clergyman refused the challenge.

On the other side of the table a soldier and a retired Indian civilian were discussing the New Youth.

Major Barrington, a tall, good-looking man with a clipped grey moustache, had retired from the regular army soon after the war to take up a diplomatic appointment and not long ago had married one of the comparatively New Youth, so that he might be expected to know something about the genus. Dale, the civilian, having returned from India with a prewar mind, was frankly bewildered by them; they seemed to speak almost a different language from the Old Youth whom he had known.

He had caught an echo from the other side of the table and used it to help his own argument. “ ‘Sanctity of human life'!” he snorted, ruffling the grey hair which tumbled over his forehead like a sheep dog's. “There you are. A sign of the times. Just what I was saying. They're so fond of their own precious skins nowadays that nothing else counts in comparison. But of course they have to wrap it up in some high-sounding phrase like ‘the sanctity of human life.' ”

“I will say for 'em, they're careful for other people's skins as well as their own,” defended the major. “I don't think it's all selfishness, you know.”

Mr Todhunter, like a good host, saw his opportunity to make the discussion general. He poked forward his small round bald head, which was balanced on the top of his gaunt frame rather like a potato that has been left out of its sack, and peered through his glasses at the civilian.

“Then you agree with Ferrers, Dale, that the sanctity of human life has been much exaggerated?” he asked.

“Oh well, I didn't say quite that, you know.”

“But you implied it,” pointed out Ferrers. “Be a man and admit that you meant it too.”

“Well, all right. Perhaps I did.”

“Of course. Any sensible man must. It's only sentimentalists like Jack here who pretend to believe that the life of some stupid oaf is a sacred thing. Eh, Major?”

“I think you want to draw the net a bit closer,” opined the major. “I won't argue for or against plain stupidity; but if you'd said, stupidity of the kind that's a danger to other people, I'm with you every time.”

“There you are, Jack, you see.” Ferrers smiled his eighteenth-century smile and sketched an unconscious little bow. Ferrers was perfect eighteenth century. “The major's a brave man, as a soldier ought to be. It takes a brave man to say straight out what all of us think: that the best thing that can happen to the stupid motorist, for instance, is that he should get killed—as quickly as possible, up against a telegraph pole—for the benefit of all the rest of us. But you think his life, which he uses to our danger, is sacred?”

“I do, certainly.” The Rev. Mr Denney leaned his rotund little form comfortably back in his chair and smiled at his neighbour with that bland conviction of being in the right, against all proof and all logic, which is so exasperating to those foolish enough to argue with the clergy.

Major Barrington twiddled the stem of his wineglass. “I wasn't thinking so much of the foolish motorist. But take the case of a statesman johnny who's going to plunge his country into war. Say that he alone can prevent it and he won't. He's going to cause the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, sacred or not, as you like. And supposing some patriotic assassin comes along and wipes him out from the best motives. Well, would you say that was a wicked thing to do? Would you still think the statesman's life a sacred thing, in itself, irrespective of how he was going to use it?”

“Good old army,” murmured Ferrers courteously. “He's got you there, Jack.”

“Do evil that good may come?” The clergyman twiddled the stem of his wineglass. “Well, that's a very old problem, isn't it?”

“No doubt,” agreed Ferrers. “But let's hear your views on it.”

“I've often thought, you know, that that was really the best way to stop war,” put in a diffident voice from the other end of the table. “I mean, threaten one or two of the leading statesmen with assassination if they declared it. But of course you'd have to make them believe that you meant it.”

“That implies a very low opinion of statesmen,” smiled the clergyman.

“Well, I think we all have that nowadays, haven't we?” suggested Mr Ambrose Chitterwick with the same diffidence.

“Yes,” said Mr Todhunter, “but I'm inclined to agree with you, Major, that it's the way in which a life may be used, rather than the actual fact of existence itself, that may constitute the sacred element. And that raises an interesting point. What is the best use to which a life may be put?”

The others listened politely, as one does to one's host; but the general feeling obviously was that the question had not done Mr Todhunter justice.

“Surely,” suggested the clergyman, “there can't be any doubt about that.”

“You mean, in the service of humanity?”


“Yes, of course. But service in what particular direction? There are two, you see: to some extent, positive and negative. I mean, the bestowal of benefits or the removal of menace. And would it be better to aim at benefiting the whole of humanity or a very large body such as a nation, which must be a hit-or-miss affair, or concentrate on a much smaller group of people with a correspondingly greater chance of achieving something?”

“Dear me, you're opening up very large questions there.”

“But rather academic?” suggested Ferrers.

The others looked as if they had understood what the questions were.

“Academic?” repeated Mr Todhunter. “Not at all. I'll give you a concrete instance if I can. Let me see. Yes. Take the case of a man whose doctor has given him only a few months to live. He——”

“I seem to have met some such situation before,” laughed Ferrers. “And I'll tell you what inevitably happens. Rendered reckless by this knowledge of his approaching end, the man, who by the way is generally a feeble, henpecked, downtrodden fellow, suddenly develops powers hitherto quite unknown to himself, engages in a desperate struggle with a super-villain, knocks out his gang singlehanded, falls in love with an incredibly beautiful girl whom he at first believes to be a member of the gang and then discovers chained to the wall in a cellar with the water up to her chin, is unable to marry her because of his coming death—and discovers at the last minute that the doctor was wrong all the time. Is that what you mean?”

“Yes, of course the situation has been used often enough in fiction,” agreed Mr Todhunter with a polite smile. “Nevertheless it must happen still more often in real life. After all, there are many incurable diseases. And supposing, for the sake of my concrete instance, that there is such a man and that he wishes, in the few months that remain to him, to do the best that he can for his fellows: to dedicate these last months, we may say, to some great service on their behalf. What do you think would be the best thing he could do?”

Mr Todhunter had addressed his question rather vaguely to the company at large rather than to any particular member, and answers came with tolerable promptitude from each.

“Shoot Mussolini,” said Major Barrington without hesitation. “He's a great man, I'm convinced; but he's a menace to the whole world.”

“No, Hitler,” corrected the Indian civilian. “Hitler's the real menace. Besides, I've always found Jews very decent fellows. Though a better job still might be to wipe out all the leaders of the military party in Japan. Our own fellows are too contemptible to be worth bothering about.”

“Personally, I don't believe in political assassination,” said Ferrers. “Wiping out Hitler wouldn't necessarily destroy Hitlerism. These movements have to play themselves out. No, I think if I were in that situation I should be inclined to eliminate some perhaps quite insignificant person who was deliberately making the lives of a small group of persons intolerable. On balance, I believe that the sum total of benefit would be greater than in wiping out some dictator who is really only the mouthpiece of a movement.”

“I agree,” said Mr Chitterwick, as if thankful at being helped towards a decision. “Unless of course there was some definite case at hand of a statesman who was personally manoeuvring his country into war and whose removal would avert it.”

Mr Todhunter looked at the clergyman. “And you, Denney?”

“I? Well, you can hardly expect me to join in this general call for violence. I would offer myself to the research department of a hospital for dangerous experiments which could not be carried out on anyone not under expectation of speedy death. And I'm convinced I should be more use to my fellow creatures than any of you blood-and-thunder merchants.”

Mr Todhunter looked acutely interested. “That is quite a new idea,” he said.

No one seemed to notice that Mr Todhunter himself had put forward no view of his own.

“You're wrong as usual, Jack,” bantered Ferrers. “For one thing no hospital would make use of you, I can promise you that; the outcry, if an experiment proved too dangerous, would be far too serious to risk. And in any case you'd be little or no use. There must be precious few experiments, if any, for which a human being is indispensable and no animal would do.”

“Are you sure of that?” asked Mr Todhunter seriously.

“I'm positive.”

The clergyman shrugged his shoulders. “Well, the whole question's only academic.”

“Of course,” agreed Mr Todhunter at once. “Nevertheless, don't you think it's interesting that out of five people voting, four are for elimination; what I called the negative direction: benefiting through removal of an existing evil rather than increasing the supply of good. In other words, murder. Which seems to bring us back to where we started, the sanctity of human life.”

Mr Todhunter poured himself out another glass of port and circulated the decanter. Mr Todhunter had no wife and was therefore at liberty to sit over his dinner table just as long as he pleased; and there were in any case this evening no ladies to join.

With the second circulation of the decanter the attitudes of the others became more relaxed. A pleasantly academic subject for argument had been found, the port was good, and the absence of impatient ladies elsewhere seemed a goodly thing.

“Very well,” said Ferrers. “To bring the wheel full circle, I'll repeat that ‘the sanctity of human life has been much exaggerated.' And this time I'll ask anyone who disagrees to tell me what sanctity there is in the continued existence of the worst type of moneylender, of a blackmailer, of a syphilitic seducer of young girls, of a Jack-in-office who curries favour with a stupid employer by throwing out on the street decent, hard-working men with wives and families––” Ferrers's voice had become unusually bitter. He looked round the table and seemed to collect himself. “Yes, if you like, even of incurable lunatics of the idiot type. Well, Jack?”

“You mean, you'd set yourself up as a judge of life and death?” counterthrust the clergyman.

“Why not? I should make a very good judge.”

“And your aim would be to eliminate these people, rather than reform them?”

“If I considered them unreformable.”

“So you'd be not only a judge of life and death, but of the potentialities for good and evil of the human soul itself?”

Ferrers refused to be intimidated. “Certainly. They're not so difficult to size up as you're suggesting.”

“I wish I had your confidence.”

“Ah, but then you're handicapped professionally, you see. You have to believe—or pretend to believe—that the souls of blackmailers, usurers and seducers are redeemable. I don't. And even if they were, the process would be too long and costly to be worth it, so far as the rest of the community is concerned.”

“And you still think that the greatest good a man can do, in such a case as I put forward, is to eliminate a source of evil?” put in Mr Todhunter with his usual earnestness.

“Source of misery or injustice,” corrected Ferrers. “I'm not concerned with abstract evil. Yes, I do. In fact I'm convinced. In anything from a political system to the human body the bad must be cut out before the good can be increased. To go about the job the other way round is to nullify your work. You agree with me, Major?”

“I do, yes. Yes, I think that's sound enough.”

“Absolutely,” pronounced the civilian.

Everyone looked at Mr Chitterwick, who blushed.

“Yes, I—I'm afraid I must agree too. It sounds distressing, in a way; but we must take things as they are, not as we would prefer them to be.”

“Then that seems one point established,” Mr Todhunter summed up. “With its corollaries it amounts to this: that the sanctity of human life has exceptions and that the greatest good a man could do is to eliminate a selected evildoer whose death must fulfil the condition of changing misery into happiness for a larger or smaller group of persons. That is the general opinion?”

BOOK: Trial and Error
2.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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