“This case is full of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts,’ Mr. Bathurst. I don’t like it because of that. Doubts about everything everywhere. No—I don’t like it.”
Everyone dreams, but what if your dream is one of murder? That is the case for Claude Merivale. The handsome actor walks into Scotland Yard one morning to turn himself in for the murder of his wife Vera. His extraordinary defense is that he killed her in his sleep, while dreaming that he was fending off an attack.
As Merivale’s trial draws near, Anthony Bathurst and Chief Inspector Andrew MacMorran have only three weeks to investigate his story. The stakes are high: if the dream defense is successful, “only about two and a half percent of married women will be safe o’nights.” Could Merivale be telling the truth? Or are his dreams even darker than he claims?
Tread Softly provides a welcome twist on the inverted mystery. It is a remarkable detective story that at first seems to have no mystery about whodunnit—what Bathurst must answer is how and why Claude Merivale killed his wife. He soon suspects, however, that there is more to this case than meets the eye. The question of Merivale’s guilt, which at first seems ironclad, becomes wonderfully ambiguous as Bathurst sifts through the smallest details of the crime in search of answers.
The story Merivale tells police is a simple one. After a day of filming, he returns home from his club at 11:22 pm, being careful not to wake his sleeping wife. After a fitful slumber, troubled by violent dreams, he awakens to find Vera strangled to death. Merivale can only assume that he himself is responsible. After carefully locking up the crime scene, he heads to Scotland Yard the next morning, never mentioning his dream until much, much later. If a jury believes his story, Merivale will walk free.
At first, Bathurst’s inquiry seems to be going nowhere. The few scraps of information he does pick up are inconclusive. As he persists, however, Bathurst can’t help noticing that, wherever he goes, someone else has always been there first. Anything worth that much trouble to hide is something Bathurst very much wants to find. If he can catch up to this mysterious man, he’s certain it will solve the case. The only concern is whether he can do so before the end of the trial.
“I’m better off than I was, Andrew,” continued Mr. Bathurst. “A shadowy suspicion has become something much more like a certainty. While there’s life, you know, there’s hope.”
“There’s not much life about Mrs. Merivale.”
“That isn’t fair. She was dead before I came into it. You can’t reproach me with that.”
In addition to more traditional sleuthing by Bathurst and MacMorran, the narrative includes correspondence between some of the vivid characters who pass through the case. Housemaid Eva Lamb is a self-proclaimed good girl who remains fiercely loyal to her dead mistress, who might not have been so good. Claude Merivale’s sister Jill writes of her devotion to her brother, yet fails to recognize him in a photograph. Fellow actor Peter Hesketh assures Claude the whole film company is behind him, even as he gossips about how easily they have managed to write Merivale out of the movie he was shooting. Taken together, their letters reveal intimate details of the Merivales’ lives while also cleverly slipping in clues whose importance will become obvious only in retrospect.
The start of the trial adds a new group of characters, as Brian Flynn provides glimpses into the minds of the twelve jurors. Some are so preoccupied with their own concerns that they barely notice that they hold a man’s life in their hands (the jury foreman, for one, is “undeniably proud to be a dentist and usually thought in terms of dentures and fillings”). Others are only too aware, like the juror Mrs. Adamson.
Claude Merivale, watching anxiously from the dock, saw her, looked hard at her, and partly understood her immediately. He thought that her face was cruel in its impassivity. As he looked and wondered, the bells of a near-by church rang. Their music struck into his heart, and a strange ghastly suspicion took a hold of him. If his suspicion were correct there was but one way that the verdict could go. The certainty of that, the cold certainty took hold of him and gripped him. He saw Mrs. Adamson’s breast heave and her face drawn into the network of wrinkles that were not the wrinkles that age had begotten. For she, too had heard the bells of the church as Merivale had heard them, and a sharp pang of memory had shot through her…Claude Merivale saw her smile and the cruelty of her face slowly faded from it and lo, there was kindliness there in its stead.
Entertaining in some spots, long-winded in others, the trial sequence does not fit the traditional mold of courtroom drama. Instead, just when the reader thinks they know where Tread Softly is heading, Flynn sends it roaring down an entirely different road, raising intriguing new possibilities. The solution is clever and plausible, and the reasons behind some of Bathurst’s choices are fully explained (even if the reader may not agree with all of them).
I was drawn to Tread Softly by its unusual premise. While Flynn does full justice to the idea of a dream that results in a real murder, he also does a great deal more, using readers’ assumptions to lead them down a more complicated path. Tread Softly maintains an air of mystery throughout, but not even the worst nightmare can stand up to the relentless curiosity of Anthony Bathurst.
As the picture begins to clear, the motive definitely eluded me and yet Flynn performs what I took to be a minor miracle and at the end of the day, the plot made sense. And a beautifully simple sense that really appealed to me.
So if you enjoy a good puzzler when it comes to your mystery fiction then I cannot help but recommend this one to you…
What it is, is another fine example of the creative versatility of Brian Flynn who continues to emerge as one of the most unjustly forgotten mystery writers of the genre’s Golden Era.
Tread Softly will be available in ebook and paperback formats from Dean Street Press on October 5, 2020. Review copy courtesy of Dean Street Press.