An experienced pilot crashes his plane and dies, and at the inquest the jury returns a verdict of ‘death by misadventure’. They’re correct, and there’s nothing else to investigate. Nah, I’m kidding, of course — we’re deep in the Golden Age here, so it has to be more complicated than that, and before you know it there are amateur sleuths, mistaken identities, re-examination of bodies, codes, intrigue, and the threat of more murder zipping around like so many flies at a picnic. As an exemplar of what the Golden Age did so well, Death of an Airman joins Death of Anton as a virtual textbook for the beginner, and as such marks another superb entry in the British Library Crime Classics series.
It really helps that Sprigg, before being bitten by the Marxist bug and abandoning writing to fight and die in the Spanish Civil War, writes with real vim and lightness, especially strong in an unusual setting brought cleanly to life, and in characters that range from lowly engineers and artistically tetchy pilots to fey aristocrats and a couple of delightfully dogged policemen:
It may be wondered why the Inspector did not request the Bishop himself not to reveal the information until asked to do so. It is unfortunately necessary to record that Inspector Creighton was deeply distrustful of everyone, especially of clergymen, when engaged in the prosecution of an investigation. In excuse it must be admitted that the Inspector had had some experience of requesting persons to keep a confidence strictly, such persons supposing that it is in their discretion to communicate the information in strict confidence to other persons, those other persons thinking the same.
In many ways, I’m not surprised Dorothy L. Sayers was a fan of this, as Sprigg has an air of Sayers at her most infectiously fun…and we all know there wasn’t nearly enough of that. His lightness and the confident attitude of his changes in tone — a channel crossing will become necessary, and give rise to an almost thrillerish episode as things are pieced together — takes very seriously what should be taken seriously and pokes fun when it’s there to be poked. For the amateur reader, this is the thin end of the sort of wedge that gets us old hands excited about this genre.
For the veteran there is, again like with Death of Anton, not a great deal here that’s going to challenge your faculties, but it’s done with such good heart that it’s difficult not to enjoy. The eventual cause of everything seems in many ways too ridiculous for words, but then I know not whereof I criticise here and don’t find it grossly offensive that things are done the way they are. It’s certainly creative, even if I have a hard time believing it! And it’s all unfurled with languid calm of a gigantic cat sunning itself in the garden, with the distinct promise of claws and teeth to come if one isn’t careful, so while not an all time classic it is difficult not to recommend.
The eponymous death has a possible impossible angle to it…I don’t know quite how to categorise it without giving things away. I’ll tag it as an impossible crime below, but don’t go in expecting Rawsonian construction on these grounds: the clewing is a touch on the specialist side, and requires an author-insert character to spout a lot of information late on, but as a method it works and I liked it. It won’t be one of the fair play classics, and some will gripe, but — again, and I don’t want this to sound like I’m granting exceptions where I normally wouldn’t — it’s fun and supposed to be enjoyed as such, and more than holds up where it needs to.
So, any chance we’ll see more Sprigg from the British Library? They’ve published one of his short stories, and on the evidence here I for one would be interested to see what else he produced, so here’s hoping. I’d also like to congratulate myself on getting through this review without a single aeroplane/flying pun — more of an achievement than it sounds, as anyone who knows me will tell you.
Also, “Christopher Saint John Sprigg” or “Christopher Sinjun Sprigg”? Discuss…
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Death of an Airman is still a very well-written and plotted mystery novel, which also brings the author’s insight and personal experience in aviation to the table. A field that has rarely, if ever, been explored by other Golden Age writers and this gives the book somewhat of a unique feeling. I genuine hope the British Library decides to republish his other mystery novels as well, because Crime in Kensington sounds like a must read for any self-respecting locked room fanboy.
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.