Originally published 1937
Anthony Bathurst #20
Preceded by Fear and Trembling
Followed by Cold Evil
Chief Inspector MacMorran is up against the most extraordinary case of his career – a self-confessed killer who may well be found innocent given the circumstances. MacMorran is sure that Merivale is the murderer, but, worried about exoneration in court, he recruits investigator Anthony Bathurst to find evidence to convict.
Bathurst isn’t convinced. If Merivale killed his wife deliberately, why pick such a risky story which is just as likely to convict as clear him? But if Merivale is innocent, was a third party involved? And if so – how?
I have wanted to tackle an Anthony Bathurst novel on this blog for quite some time but with so many now available, I wasn’t sure where to begin. Happily earlier this week, the Puzzle Docctor provided some helpful guidance and so I decided to bypass the ten titles I owned already in favor of this title, his top recommendation. As it happens it is a book that seemed particularly well aligned with my own taste in mystery fiction.
While most mystery stories begin prior to or immediately after a murder, Tread Softly begins with someone having already made their confession. Actor Claude Merivale had turned himself in at Scotland Yard, taking responsibility for killing his wife. The twist however is that he claims that this happened while he was sleeping, strangling her while experiencing a really vivid dream. Chief Inspector MacMorran believes that this is a story that Merivale has concocted to avoid responsibility and asks Bathurst to find evidence to back that up.
This unusual starting point for the investigation gives it a rather different tone and structure from many Golden Age detective stories. For one thing, the knowledge that a trial will soon begin means that Bathurst is working against the clock, adding to the urgency of the investigation. For another, the existence of a confession means that we have a clear sequence of events to consider and compare with the evidence Bathurst will find in the course of his own investigation.
It is easy to imagine how this structure could have gone wrong. Rather than presenting the reader with an open field of suspects and motives, instead they are asked to consider what appears to be a series of related questions with very limited possibilities. Either Merivale is innocent or guilty? If he is innocent, why tell the police he is responsible? If he did actually do the deed, was he awake or asleep?
One of the reasons that I think this scenario never feels constricting is that Flynn quickly establishes, through Bathurst, a series of other questions and problems with the scenarios presented by Merivale and MacMorran that show that neither explanation is entirely satisfactory. We assume that this book cannot simply require us to verify one of these two stories – that the truth must lie somewhere in between if not in an entirely different place altogether. This allows the book to navigate and sustain some ambiguity about whether it is an inverted mystery, a psychological suspense story or a more traditional whodunit.
I really enjoyed the early chapters of the book in which we are given quite a bit of information that is still unknown to our sleuth. We get to know Merivale and some members of his household, read some correspondence and get a better sense of Merivale’s personality. There are even a few moments in which we learn some of his thoughts which rather than throwing light on the matter only seem to make it more confusing.
A short trial sequence falls at the midpoint of the book. In this chapter we are introduced to the members of the jury and follow them as they briefly debate their view of the case, albeit in generalities rather than specifics, before they reach a verdict. The trial is probably my least favorite section of the book though I think Flynn does a pretty good job of creating a set of different personalities to make up his jury and I do appreciate that it serves as a transition to the second phase of the novel in which Bathurst digs a little deeper to try and uncover the truth of what happened that night.
I don’t want to say too much about that final section of the book except that it is a clever investigation that contains some pretty interesting developments. Flynn incorporates one or two very inventive ideas into the plot and I will say I was utterly baffled about how Bathurst would make sense of it all. Happily he does though and everything is explained. While I have a few reservations related to the an aspect of the motive, the solution is quite clever and original in places.
I enjoyed Bathurst’s company and particularly his interactions with MacMorran throughout the book. As investigators from the gifted amateur school go, he is pretty charming – managing to walk the difficult line of being obviously very smart and well-read without being smug and insufferable.
Overall then I was very impressed with Tread Softly which I found to be baffling and entertaining in pretty equal measure. I have little doubt I will return to Bathurst soon and I look forward to seeing what else Brian Flynn has in store for me.
The Verdict: Tread Softly has a very clever and original premise that it happily lives up to. Highly recommended.
Puzzle Doctor offered up an initial review and also awards it the top spot in his top ten titles of the first twenty by Flynn (linked above).
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime offered a very positive review and I see looking at it that I responded enthusiastically to the suggestion that this played with the notion of the inverted mystery in the comments. I can only say that my efforts to track down a copy were met with no success at the time as these reprints were, at that point, but a twinkle in the eye of Puzzle Doctor and Dean Street Press!
TomCat @ Moonlight Detective is a little more muted in their praise, preferring Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye and Murder Near Mapleton.
Similarly Dead Yesterday offers a broadly positive review. Common to this and all of the above is praise for the book’s unusual concept and structure.
A Cataloguing Note
For a substantial portion of the book this crime is presented ambiguously as though we could either be looking at a traditional whodunnit or an inverted mystery. As I am aware that my tagging choice would reveal the answer to that (as well as this book having appeal to fans of both styles) I have tagged it as though each were the correct solution.