As the title suggests, this novel by Christopher St. John Sprigg has as its setting an aerodrome called Baston Air Club, although as the story progresses the investigating team travel as far as Glasgow and Paris. The aviation milieu is expertly presented, which is aided by Sprigg’s prior knowledge and experience of flying as he worked for an aeronautics publishing company and even wrote books such as Fly with me: An Elementary Textbook on the Art of Piloting and Let’s Learn to Fly.
Something I picked up on was the way women pilots and flyers were not side-lined in the story and in fact the first characters who use the aerodrome are in fact women: Sarah Sackbut, the aerodrome manager, Lady Laura and Mrs Angevin. Chapter 1 introduces us to many of the key players in the novel and reveals rivalries and antagonisms, in particular George Furnace, one of the instructors argues with Mrs Angevin and is said to be troubled by something. It is therefore unsurprising that he is the first corpse of the novel; his plane crashing to the ground. His death is declared to be a case of death by misadventure, but the Australian Bishop of Cootamundra, who just so happened to be at the aerodrome to start his flying lessons, thinks differently. Yet, Sprigg’s does not make the cause of Furnace’s death clear-cut and the ambiguity of whether it was an accident, suicide or murder remains until the end of the novel.
The Bishop of Cootamundra, is of course not the first amateur detective from the religious community, with his probably most famous predecessor being G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. In some respects they are similar as the Bishop of Cootamundra has an equally good flair for encouraging confidences and is interested more in moral rather than legal law. Furthermore, like Father Brown did so very often, the Bishop also takes on a confessor like role at the denouement of the novel. However, in some ways he does differ, as I think the Bishop is more of an extrovert, appears more youthful and is perhaps a little less introspective. In addition, I think Father Brown gets more involved in investigations, whereas as I discuss later, the Bishop of Cootamundra takes a very passive detecting role.
But Death of an Airman is not simply an amateur detective novel, as there are also two key policemen called Inspector Creighton and Inspector Bray and in fact they deserve the vast majority of the credit for solving the case, once the Bishop has brought his suspicions to Inspector Creighton about Furnace’s death. Apart from the three women mentioned the other potential suspects include Andy Ness, one of the engineer’s at the aerodrome, Thomas Vane, a flying pupil and Captain Randall, who also flies there. The initial problem for the investigation is discovering any motives for killing Furnace, yet this soon changes as his bank account is checked and in the final months of his life he gave a substance to a chemist to be analysed. What ensues is a lot of methodical police work following up potential links and clues, including a secret code hidden within a newspaper. All of which accumulates into a spree of arrests at the charity fundraiser at the aerodrome, but not before the body count gets a little higher.
I think my main gripe with this novel is that the Bishop is insufficiently involved in the investigation. Once he has brought his suspicions to the Inspector about Furnace, his presence diminishes and he only features significantly in the tale in the last part of the novel during the Charity fundraiser and even then the support he lends to the case is of the accidental and coincidental kind. This is at odds with the way he is presented in the blurb for the book (British Library edition). Moreover, the final shock or twist at the end, once the case is concluded doesn’t completely fit with the rest of the novel and it felt like it had been glued on to the end of the story, meaning I didn’t feel the book had prepared for it. However, I think I would still be interesting in trying other detective stories written by Sprigg of which there are six:
Crime in Kensington/Pass the Body (1933)
Fatality in Fleet Street (1933)
The Perfect Alibi (1934)
The Corpse with the Sunburnt Face (1935)
Death of a Queen (1935)
The Six Queer Things (1937)
His career as a detective writer was short lived due to his change in perception of them and also because of his early death in 1937, whilst fighting in the Spanish Civil War. However, if you interested in reading more about Christopher St. John Sprigg Gadetection and The Passing Tramp have also written posts about him.
Rating: 3.5 (For me the pacing was a bit slow at times, the bishop was not sufficiently involved in the case, which makes the twist at the end unprepared for).
Although I like the British Library cover, I think perhaps this earlier cover fits better with the novel, especially in the sense of conveying not only the plot but also a more dramatic atmosphere. What does anyone else think?