“Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, They go up diddly-up-up, They go down diddly-own-down”
This applies perfectly to George Furnace, flight instructor of Baston Aero Club, but when he goes down diddly-own-down, he does so rather rapidly and crashes his plane. When a suicide note is discovered, it seems that Furnace, unable to bear a guilty secret has chosen to end his life in a spectacular fashion.
Enter Dr Edwin Marriott, the Bishop of Cootamundra, Australia, who is visiting the airfield for flying lessons and smells the proverbial rat. His basic medical training shows a problem with the time of death – against all possibilities, Furnace was apparently alive hours after the crash. And there’s also the small matter of the bullet wound…
You know how sometimes a book can put you off reading for a bit? You read an absolute clunker – in this case The Pit-Prop Syndicate – and you’re wary of trying another new author. The Golden Age is full of lost books, some of the them classics, some of them… not so much. But the nice folks at the British Library sent me a copy of this one, along with Silent Nights, their compilation of Christmas tales. This was their June 2015 re-issue but seemed to gather less attention that some of their other titles. So I figured, why not? I really enjoyed the Farjeon tales Thirteen Guests and The Z Murders (despite the second one being – well, very odd) and I’d encountered Sprigg before with Fatality On Fleet Street which was a lot of fun.
Sprigg was a Marxist who died in the Spanish Civil War before his thirtieth birthday, leaving a legacy of seven detective books – see Curtis Evans’ post on The Passing Tramp blog for more information. Death Of An Airman was the fourth, dating from 1934. I don’t know if any of the sleuths herein – either the Bishop or one of Inspectors Bray or Creighton – were recurring sleuths or if this is their sole appearance. Does anyone know the answer to this?
Anyway, on to this one. It’s fair to say that I loved it. It’s a fairly traditional whodunit that trots along nicely. Sprigg was a talented writer and while the Inspectors aren’t the most interesting characters, the rest of the cast are filled out nicely. The plot is full of twists and turns, with a clever play on whether Furnace’s death was murder or suicide. Theories ricochet from one to the other and there’s no risk to the reader being disappointed if the second option is the truth as there is a second crime to think about that rapidly comes to the fore.
The idea of the air-show and the Aerodome in this sense is a thing of the past – especially the race between five amateur pilots! – but it’s a part of the era that was rarely visited by mystery fiction. I can’t think of another example apart from one or two of Ed Hoch’s Sam Hawthorne stories. I wonder how well their workings was known at the time. One aspect – the possibility of being able to do something – is essential knowledge if the armchair sleuth is going to solve it, but Bray only discovers its existence very late in the day. Is he being dim (for the time) but nobody else raises it as an option either? It’s not exactly on the level of The Crooked Hinge’s reveal, but I can see people raising an eyebrow at that bit. It is a) true and b) clued though.
Regardless to the fact that our heroes (and Sprigg isn’t really sure if it’s the Bishop or Bray who is supposed to be the sleuth) need to have the villain confess everything rather than working it out for themselves, this is a reasonably clued mystery and on top of that, it’s enormous fun. An absolute cracker of a read that every fan of the Golden Age will enjoy. And on top of that, it probably wins the award for the least convincing married-by-the-end-of-the-book relationship ever. And it looks fantastic too.
So, just in case you haven’t put two and two together – this one is Highly Recommended. The best of the British Library Classics series that I’ve come across so far.
Oh, why not? All together now…