A review of Tread Softly by Brian Flynn
Taking its title from a line from W B Yeats, Tread Softly, the twentieth in Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst series, was originally published in 1937. According to Steve Barge aka The Puzzle Doctor, the man who rediscovered the sadly neglected Brian Flynn and in conjunction with Dean Street Press have painstakingly reissued them for a modern audience, this is Flynn’s masterpiece and the book which convinced him that it was worth trying to revive the author’s fortunes. There can be no higher praise.
The first thing to strike the reader is the unusual premise. Chief Inspector Andrew McMorran of the Yard and Anthony Bathurst in full Holmesian mode are discussing the case of Claude Merivale, a film actor, who has voluntarily turned himself in, readily confessing that he has killed his wife, Vera. However, he claims that it was involuntary murder, being in the grip of a powerful and vivid dream in which he felt the need to defend himself. In doing so, he lashed out and strangled his wife. It seems a rather binary problem; either Merrivale is lying, and it is murder most foul, or it is an accidental, albeit tragic, death, one that could send shock waves amongst sleeping partners.
Flynn then uses a series of letters to throw some light on to the relationship of the Merrivales, firstly from Eve Lamb, the Merrivale’s housemaid who shows unshakeable loyalty to her dead mistress, then from Claude’s sister, Jill, who declares her devotion to her brother, and then from one of Claude’s fellow actors, Peter Hesketh, who pledges that the company is right behind him even though they seem to be coping well without him in bringing their latest film to a conclusion. The letters bare close reading as they do contain some hints and clues which as the novel progresses, become increasingly important.
Although McMorran and Bathurst do some sleuthing, unearthing a photograph of Vera with a man, presumed to be her husband but about which Jill finds some troubling detail, and a sighting of Merrivale returning home on the night in question considerably earlier than he had said, they do not get very far. In the absence of any new developments. The trial goes ahead. Here Flynn gives short pen pictures of the nine men and three women true, giving us some insight into their thinking. The defence, as masterful as is it is obvious, prevails and Merrivale, halfway through the novel is acquitted.
But that is not the end of the case and Bathurst refuses to be defeated, wracking his brains and carrying out further inquiries to get to the bottom of what really happened on that fateful night. A second murder gives him something to get his teeth into and the solution is ingenious. Although working alongside McMorran, Bathurst rather sours the relationship at the end, going rogue and playing judge and jury himself.
Along the way we have ill-fitting dentures, a complex family relationship, mistaken identities, a pair of duck white suits, a letter someone is anxious to recover, although its contents are never disclosed, someone who always seems to have got somewhere just before Bathurst, and much more. There are also some wonderful characters, none more so than Pike Holloway, a police constable who spotted Merrivale returning home early. He is delighted to sit at the feet of two masters of his profession and quaff beer in generous quantities while they discuss the nuances of the case. Inevitably, his evidence is not quite what it seemed to be.
Flynn has produced an intriguing mystery which keeps the reader on their metaphorical toes until the end and played around with the novel’s structure to introduce fascinating insights and perspectives. To my mind, the book’s weakness is motivation. Undoubtedly, people at the time had a higher sense of honour than prevails nowadays but would the indignities suffered really lead to murder? Nevertheless, it is highly enjoyable.