Tag Archives: W B Yeats

Tread Softly

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.     

What Is The Origin Of (272)?…

Hem and haw

One of the many attributes a politician needs to get to the top of what is a slippery pole is the ability to deflect a question, keeping their options open and issuing a cloud of words that obfuscates the simple fact that they have not addressed the question. Perhaps W.B Yeats was right when he observed in his poem, The Second Coming, that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. To hem and haw is to speak hesitantly or indecisively, usually with lots of ums and erms interspersing the trickle of discernible words.

The two verbs conjoined by and both had independent existences before they came together. Hem is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “an interjectional utterance like a slight half cough, used to attract attention, give warning, or express doubt or hesitation”. It is what grammarians call an echoic verb, one that imitates the sound itself, in this instance of someone clearing their throat as if to speak. It has lent itself to the word ahem, which is used as a more polite way to clear one’s throat, either preparatory to speech or to warn someone of your presence.

Haw also echoes the sound it represents, defined by the OED as “an expression of hesitation”. It is one of those nothing words that pepper people’s daily speech, like, uh, um, huh, a verbal stopgap to allow someone to gather their thoughts and continue with whatever it is they have to say.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the two should have been put together, suggesting the impression of someone clearing their throat and gathering their thoughts before launching into the next part of their dialogue. One of the characters in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, dating from the late 14th century, is described as someone who “hewed” and “gan to hum”. John Palsgrave, an English priest and compiler of his Lesclarcissement de la langue francyose from 1530, in which he sought to explain to his English readers the intricacies of the French tongue, was probably the first to put the two elements together; “he hummeth and heath and wyll nat come out withall”.       

The English language was even more fluid in those days than it is now and variants such as hum and haw or um and ah or hem and hawke began to appear. It seemed that you could perm any two from the collection and the meaning would remain the same. In American English hem and haw is more common whereas in English as spoken in Blighty we seem to prefer hum and haw.

Jonathan Swift, in his 1728 poem called My Lady’s Lamentation used hum and haw, albeit the other way round, for the purposes of the rhyme; “he haws and he hums./ At last out it comes”.  A meeting with royalty may be a justifiable occasion for a bit of hemming and hawing. In this instance from 1786 it clearly had the desired effect; “I hemmed and hawed…but the Queen stopped reading”.

Haw also has the sense, at least these days, of a rather lofty, affected way of speaking. It is no coincidence that this was reflected in the British nickname of Lord Haw-Haw given to William Joyce who broadcast regularly to these shores at the behest of Hitler during the Second World War.

At least, someone who hems and haws is perhaps giving some careful consideration to what they are saying, which can’t be a bad thing, unless they are a politician, of course.