The Man Who Didn’t Fly (1955) by Margot Bennett

Bennett is a completely new to me author and I have been eagerly awaiting the release of this title. Martin Edwards, in his introduction to the reprint, describes this book as ‘an original mystery’ with an ‘unorthodox’ puzzle and having now read the book I can well see why this story was the shortlisted for both CWA and Mystery Writers of America best novel awards. Bennett was Scottish born, but she grew up in Australia and New Zealand, before returning to England, aged 23, when she went to work in the world of advertising, like Sayers. Interestingly like Christopher St John Sprigg, Margot Bennett went to Spain during the Civil War and helped in ‘’the first British Medical Unit.’ Unlike Sprigg she survived this experience and also met her husband there.

The book gets straight to the point in the opening pages. A private plane has crashed into the Irish Sea. No one has survived, and more importantly no bodies have been found. On board were a pilot and three men, yet four passengers were meant to be going on the flight. The fourth man has not turned up, so the authorities have no idea which of the four the three men are. Passports were not required for the journey and the various witnesses who vaguely saw them on the day cannot determine which of the three men were there. Naturally there is suspicion attached to the fourth man. Why hasn’t he come forward?

Inspector Lewis and Sergeant Young are sent to figure out who the three men were. The pair have several people to interview, yet the main focus is on the Wade family; the social nucleus which connected all four men. The majority of the book is concerned with the two days leading up to the day of the flight enabling the reader to witness the troubling events which are brewing beforehand. The seeds of deceit and animosity sown long ago now appear to be bearing quite the harvest. But which of them led to only three men going on the plane?

Overall Thoughts

In a nutshell I have found a new favourite author!

I am fond of a crime novel which has an unusual structure or premise and it is brilliant when such experimentation pays off and is successfully executed. This is a character driven tale, yet the reader needs to pay attention. The details, often the smallest ones, all prove crucial to the final section of the book when Inspector Lewis returns to the earlier seemingly useless witness testimonies and then spots the clues which allow him to proffer an answer on which men were in the plane, using the information provided in the narrative provided by the Wades. For me I felt this ensured that the puzzle aspect of the mystery is not sacrificed to the characters; the key to solving the puzzle in fact is very much rooted within them and the story they have to tell. I think some aspects of the solution are easier to anticipate than others, but all of them are based on pieces of information given earlier in the book. In this sense Bennett plays fair with her readers. Despite there being no body on page one, rather there is the absence of quite a few bodies, the reader is still given an intriguing mystery to solve. The unusualness of the mystery put me in mind of another experimental mystery Pat McGerr, though I think Bennett’s experiment is more successful than McGerr’s. The story also gave me something of an Inspector Calls vibe, in its tone, but that might just be me! (N. B. No there are no ghosts in Bennett’s story!)

As I mentioned above the narrative spends a good amount of time with the Wades and the story they have to tell, yet Bennett is careful to avoid it being one long monologue and she manages to break and mix up the investigation with different interludes. I really enjoyed seeing the plot progress through the Wades’ testimony as you can identify various sources of conflict attached to each of the four men and to me it seemed like four cars converging to one point, with the expectation of a smash up – yet the reader doesn’t know what the final outcome will be.

The Wades make for an interesting family to follow and Bennett gives them several intriguing qualities, such as one of the daughters going to medical school. I also found Charles Wade, the father, to be rather Austen-esque, comprising qualities from both the spendthrift Sir Walter from Persuasion, with some of the benevolent financial incompetence of Mr Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. This particularly comes through when their loss of financial standing is discussed, with one of the daughters and the father failing to adapt to their reduced circumstances:

‘At home her father still dreamt of the easy past when he had sat in the manor house like a benevolent ornament […] With the slightest encouragement her father would have insisted on dressing for dinner. She didn’t see this as going down with the flag flying: it was more like struggling to live underwater in a sunken ship.’

Bennett’s writing style also appealed to me, often weaving in a note of understatement and she gives her unusual mystery a tantalisingly closed, yet open denouement.

Unsurprisingly, given my rare full mark rating, I strongly recommend this title and I am already on the look out for more books by this author to try.

Rating: 5/5

Source: Review Copy (British Library)

This reprint edition also includes the short story ‘No Bath for the Browns’ in which Greta and Charles Brown buy a ten-year lease on a house unseen. Yet they are in for a horrible surprise when they decide to move the bath to a different room. This is a very short tale, but it is highly enjoyable and has an apt sting in its tail.

14 comments

    • You do like to ask hard questions! I really enjoyed ADOP, but if the award is for a mystery novel then part of me think that Bennett’s book fits the bill more. I certainly think Bennett’s book has more of a puzzle to it than the Armstrong book, albeit an unconventional one.
      I am interested to see what your answer would be to your own question!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Yeah, go on, you’ve convinced me. One of the real successes of the BLCC range is their willingness to mix the very conventional (Bude, Bellairs, Rowland) with the very slightly off-kilter (Lorac, Melville, Farjeon) and the occasional unexpectedly weird gem you’re surprised they took a risk on (Rolls, Carr, this by the sounds of it)…and then fill in the gaps with some classics (Berkeley, Crofts) — the coverage it continues to achieve is delightful to see. I was waiting on some reviews of this, since I knew nothing about it prior to the BL announcing it, but one review in and I’m committing.

    So, of course, us being us and disagreeing as we do, I’m gonna loathe it with every fibre of my being now 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your five-star review is very encouraging. Last year, I dug up an obscure Dutch translation of Away Went the Little Fish and wanted read more. So when this reprint was announced around the same time as my review was posted, it felt like a personal service from the British Library.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. WoW! This book had long been on my wishlist and had no idea BL was going to publish it. So this is Great News! Thanks for the review, Kate. I have only skimmed through it. Will read it fully once I have read the book.😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I purchased this title last week via my local Kindle store – but my Kindle TBR pile is huge. And just as I’m about to decide what to read, and feel at a loss – I discover this review that I missed out on. ☺️

    Liked by 1 person

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