Tread Softly (Brian Flynn)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Tread Softly is an exercise in minimalism. Claud Merivale, a film actor, confessed to the police that he strangled his wife… But he was asleep at the time, and killed her while he was dreaming.

This is skillfully plotted and clever, but the plot leaves Flynn little room to manoeuvre. There are few places the story can go: Was the murder committed while dreaming, or was it deliberate? If deliberate, what is the motive? Or is Merivale innocent and shielding someone?

The Guardian, 15 October 1937

Chief Inspector MacMorran, for one, believes there is more to the case. With only three weeks before the trial starts, he asks Anthony Bathurst to discover the truth – before more husbands start having murderous nightmares.

Bathurst discovers minor discrepancies: the murderer may have worn gloves; a photograph of Merivale in a deck-chair; a Maidenhead nightclub; a change of suits; and the shape of a jaw.

Occasionally, Flynn takes us inside Merivale’s head (Ch. VI), and what we learn confirms the police suspicions that the glass-smooth surface of Merivale’s defence conceals malice aforethought.

The trial takes place halfway through, and the verdict goes as one expects (or fears). (The pen-portraits of the jurors in Ch. X, incidentally, are beautifully done.)

The second half is a more straightforward detective story; another murder is committed, this time one that passes as natural causes, and to which no-one confesses.

This is a chess problem with two (at most, three) pieces on the board. There cannot be any “‘crash’ of surprise”, but Flynn shows considerable skill in keeping the reader off guard. The solution, within the story’s narrow confines, is commendably unforeseen; I knew A. was involved, but not his function (ROT13: V vzntvarq ur jnf Zrevinyr’f nppbzcyvpr, engure guna uvf frperg eviny; naq V qvqa’g oryvrir Zrevinyr jnf vaabprag).

Tread Softly was well received at the time; the Crime-Book Society recommended it, while later books (Glittering Prizes, 1942; Elymas the Sorcerer, 1945; The Sharp Quillet, 1947) were advertised as by “the author of Tread Softly“. It sold somewhere between 52,000 and 76,000 copies, according to the publishers. (More recently, of course, it enthralled Steve Barge.)

Tread Softly seems to be modelled on early Christopher Bush: cinemas and actors, a film screening (clues hidden in the movie), night-clubs and adultery, the murderer known from the start (why/howdunnit), and a two-part structure.

Contemporary reviews

Musselburgh News (John o’ Joppa, 17 September 1937): Tread Softly, by Brian Flynn, is the title of an unusual thriller. Murder is admitted in the first chapter and a verdict of “Not Guilty” is pronounced in the middle of the book, yet interest is sustained until the end, where a most unexpected finish awaits the reader.

Reynolds’s Newspaper (19 September 1937): Actor Merivale confessed that he strangled his wife – but said he was asleep. and did it in a dream. What really happened? A second murder complicates the issue; but Anthony Bathurst carves the whole thing neatly up in the end.

Burton Observer and Chronicle (28 September 1937): Tread Softly starts off promisingly with a man rushing into a police station and confessing that he has strangled his wife in his sleep. But although the jury were willing to swallow the yarn, the police and Antony Bathurst were not so green, and we accompany them in their strenuous and eventful chase after the truth. This is a Book Society recommendation, and worthy of the honour.

Birmingham Daily Gazette (29 September 1937): Half the art of writing a thriller nowadays, is to think up either a new type of murder or a new form of murderer. Mr. Flynn does this, and presumably that is why the Crime Book Society adds this title to its list of selected “recommends”.

Claude Merivale admitted that he killed his wife, gave meticulous details of the strangling, but asserted that he was asleep at the time. K.C. for the defence being brilliant, Merivale builds up a case based on psychological trauma and is acquitted. But Anthony Bathurst, that unofficial helper to the C.I.D., who has already shown his skill in earlier cases, continues to be baffled.

This is an unusual angle, you see. The crime takes place before the story opens, the self-confessed murderer is exonerated in a trial by jury and therefore can never be tried again for that crime – yet Anthony sets to work sleuthing after the horse, when, as you might say, the stable door is firmly padlocked. And sleuth with surprising results he does! It is an exceptionally interesting story.

Western Morning News (G.A.R., 30 September 1937): Can a man strangle his wife while dreaming, and on waking be fully conscious of the circumstances of his crime – so conscious, in fact, that he goes straight to Scotland Yard and gives himself up?

That, in Tread Softly, by Brian Flynn, is the problem confronting Chief Inspector Andrew MacMorran, who, as sometimes happens in detective fiction, but seldom in real life, calls in the investigator Anthony Bathurst to solve the mystery.

And Bathurst strides through the pages like some genial Colossus, quoting the Greek philosophers, discovering clues and making brilliant deductions therefrom – which is fortunate, for it would be a serious matter if the “dream” defence should succeed. Far too many wives would meet premature deaths owing to their husbands’ nocturnal imaginings.

Mr. Flynn is generous to a degree. He gives us yet another murder – this time by poisoning – and the fun is fast and furious, working up to an ingenious and most satisfactory climax.

But the author or publishers should have taken more care with the production. Apart from some minor errors, it is annoying to read on p. 105 that Montague Jenkins’s father was a coal and coke merchant, and then to find only four pages later that the same Montague was the sole issue of the union between an elementary school teacher and an extremely aggressive health visitor.

Aberdeen Press and Journal (24 November 1937): Brian Flynn, well known as a writer of thrillers, has scored another success with Tread Softly… A man walks into Scotland Yard confessing that he has strangled his wife, but says at the time he was fast asleep, having committed the murder in a dream. Chief Inspector MacMorran thought the case was cut and dried, but Anthony Bathurst, private investigator, had other ideas and his inquiries produced some startling results which should please the reader.


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