Tread Softly (1937) by Brian Flynn

Hands up who knows which blogger is obsessed with all things Brian Flynn? I’m afraid there is no prize for guessing correctly, but then again I think the Puzzle Doctor’s preoccupation with Flynn’s work is quickly becoming a universally known fact. At this year’s Bodies from the Library conference, the Doc kindly pressed upon lent me a copy of this book to try and it has only taken a month (ish) since that loan to get around to reading it, so not bad going for me. For a first experience of Flynn, I think I was given a very good choice, with the central premise being fairly original.

Chief Inspector Andrew MacMorran comes to Anthony Bathurst, our amateur sleuth, with an extraordinary tale. A man named Claude Merivale admits to Scotland Yard that he has strangled his wife, yet his defence is that he was fast asleep and was dreaming whilst doing it. He was being attacked in his dream and therefore defended himself, or so he says. The police duly arrest him for murder, though weirdly there is no mention of the possibility of a manslaughter charge. The police are worried that with the medical backing he will be seeking, plus his strong defence counsel, Merivale will walk free and MacMorran envisages him as a potential George Joseph Smith: ‘to marry again […] and have more wives and more dreams.’ He also feels it will lead to a precedent and that new killers will emerge with that very same defence. So they have come to Bathurst to see if he can find more damning evidence in the three week run up to the trial, though he initially seems more interested in telling MacMorran what the police should have done at the time…

Overall Thoughts

Looking back on this read, one of the first things to strike me, is Flynn’s creative use of structure, as although the story opens conventionally, I think the plot from the half way mark begins to diverge from the expected trajectory. This all ties into the way Flynn ambiguously plays around with the notion of the inverted mystery. There is also of course the early chapters which contain various letters sent by those known to the suspect to various friends, family members and even Claude himself. In these we often find out what Bathurst has been up to vicariously but we also get given a number of hints and clues not immediately available to Bathurst to ponder over, so I think the letters as a device are used pretty well and they also reveal a lot about the writers of these compositions.

Given the nature of Claude’s defence you might be worrying that the investigation will lack direction or be wholly theoretical, but I am glad to say this is not the case. I think the police and Bathurst are slow in some respects, but that nevertheless Bathurst brings out a number of tangible clues and facts. However this new information is not neatly sorted out in time for the trial in the story, which is no bad thing, as it adds an extra zest to it all. Like Postgate would go on to extensively in Verdict of Twelve, Flynn gives us an inside track on the jurors and their backgrounds, which I also enjoyed. As to the final solution I thought it was a very good one; not overly complicated, but still possessing unusual aspects and dare I say it containing a Berkeley variation. An advantage to its simplicity is that you can easily go back over in your mind the earlier events of the story and see how Bathurst’s seemingly random questions all lead up to the solution.

So if you enjoy a good puzzler when it comes to your mystery fiction then I cannot help but recommend this one to you, though you will of course first have to solve the first puzzle of how to track down a copy.

Rating: 4.25/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Features a courtroom scene

If you want to know what the Puzzle Doctor thought of this book you can read it here, though you can of course take it as a given that he enjoyed it too.

Regular readers of the blog will know that I recently wrote a post on GAD fiction in the North of England. Whilst today’s review is not such an example I did find a passage mentioning Newcastle and perhaps highlighting the reason why it never made it as the central location of a vintage crime novel: ‘His mother and sisters were in Newcastle on holiday (they were a strange family, the Pollards)’.


  1. Glad to see my obsession isn’t completely unfounded. Admittedly some of the other Flynn titles have more traditional structures – well, the ones that I could track down anyway.

    Regarding the lack of manslaughter, I actually checked this with the Head of Law at my school. Apparently it’s correct – manslaughter implies a deliberate or irresponsible action that basically got out of hand. The only outcomes here are either murder or the “killed during a dream” excuse is true in which case the individual is in fact innocent. Criminal lawyers, feel free to correct me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, and “all things Brian Flynn”? Not the footballer Brian Flynn. Or the new age philosopher Brian Flynn. Or the Japanese toy expert Brian Flynn… put it this way, it takes an age to check the eBay listings…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You had me at ‘ambiguously plays around with the notion of the inverted mystery’… I think the premise sounds fascinating and look forward to seeing how it plays out.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the review – the strong rating and comments pertaining to its puzzle gives me hope that my purchase of ‘Tread Softly’ will not be in vain. 😁 But the best must be for the last, so I shall start with ‘Spiked Lion’ instead…

    Liked by 1 person

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