Death Of An Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg

Death of an AirmanAll together now…

“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…

25 comments

  1. I don’t think for me this was the best of the British Library reprints, though it was quite a good book. I think this book started really well and I liked the choice of setting and how female characters were not side lined, but for me I felt the Bishop was insufficiently involved in the investigation, despite what it says on the blurb which makes out he is much more involved. I also think due to his lack of involvement in the book, as he does disappear for quite chunk of the story, the final surprise at the end, came across as rather tacked on and didn’t really fit with the rest of the book which annoyed me. I kinda felt like it had come out of nowhere.

    Like

    • That’s why I don’t read blurbs – they don’t always get things right. I’m not convinced the Bishop is supposed to be the sleuth – all he really does is spot the problem with the “accident”.

      The final bit (unless you mean the last page thing that definitely comes from nowhere) – you’re probably right that it comes out of nowhere. But the rest is just about solveable.

      Out of curiosity – which is your favourite of the British Library books?

      Like

  2. Yeah the last page thing was what I was referring to. And my favourite BL book was Death of Anton by Alan Melville. After that there are quite a number of other ones I really enjoyed such as Scream in Soho, Quick Curtain, The Z Murders and a couple of ones by Mavis Doriel Hay.

    Like

    • Weirdly, I received an alert for this reply and then WordPress spammed it (along with the other two replies) along with someone else’s. The Z Murders… it’s fun but not a patch on this one. I’m looking forward to taking a look at Death Of Anton at some point in the future and I’ve got Scream In Soho on my shelf as well.

      Like

  3. Really pleased to hear that you feel this is such a classically satisfying novel, Doc. I’ve just read The Hogs Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts in this series – review up on Wednesday! – and while I enjoyed it I can appreciate how others may not. …Airman sounded great, so I’m pleased it bears out well in your opinion; I’ll look forward to it even moire now.

    Like

  4. Thanks Puzzle Doctor for the review – you’ve made me give a second thought to trying out ‘Death of an Airman’. 🙂 My local library will be stocking up on some British Library Crime Classics, and I’ve been quite eager to get my hands on ‘Santa Klaus Murder’.

    JJ – glad you liked ‘Hog’s Back Mystery’. It was the best British Library Crime Classics reprint that I’ve read, though I haven’t read that many…

    Like

  5. […] Puzzle Doctor @ ISOTCMN: 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. […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.