Last week I kicked off this year’s Reprint of the Year awards. There were fireworks, cake, balloons… well maybe not, but if you missed that post you can find it here. It includes all the key dates for the award, and it is also in the comments of this post that you can make your own nominations. Three of these nominations will make it into the final poll.
Before we take a look at my first nomination, here are the links for the other nominations given by bloggers this week:
Aidan – Mysteries Ahoy!
Bev – My Reader’s Block
Brad – Ah Sweet Mystery Blog
JJ – The Invisible Event
Laurie – Bedford Bookshelf
Moira – Clothes in Books
Puzzle Doctor – In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel
I am still expecting a nomination post from Dead Yesterday and once it has arrived I will add the link to the list.
My first choice for the Reprint of the Year Awards this year is Margot Bennett’s The Man Who Didn’t Fly (1955). But before I explain why I think you should vote for this title, here is a quick recap of what the book is about:
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?
This is not the first time this book has been up for an award. In fact it nearly won the CWA Gold Dagger award in 1957, pipped to the post by Charlotte Armstrong’s A Dram of Poison (1956). So will this be Bennett’s year? In addition to this in 1958 Julian Symons included it in his list of ‘100 Best Crime Stories,’ which featured in the London Sunday Times. Moreover, The Saturday Review, in December 1956 wrote of this book that it was a ‘bright, witty job,’ that it was a ‘good fun agreeable mystery, all the way; cast excellent, cops included’ and summed it up as a ‘real sparkler.’ Yet despite this praise at the time, Bennett’s work has largely fallen off the radar, despite this title having been reprinted before. I certainly had not heard of her until I saw this title listed in the British Library’s Crime Classics reprints for this year.
Like other authors of the era, I think a key reason for her becoming less well-known, is that she did not develop a striking series detective, nor do her books follow the conventions of traditional whodunnits. Neither of these two aspects are negatives, yet nevertheless, they can become blackmarks when it comes to the cultural collective memory.
However, if we look at current crime fiction tastes we see a lot of mystery novels which are returning to the idea of playing around with structure and with employing unusual premises. For instance, we have titles such as Alex Pavesi’s The Eighth Detective (2020) and Anthony Horowitz’s metafictional works, with a novel inside a novel, such as the Moonflower Murders (2020). I am sure you will be able to add ideas of your own to these two.
So why am I mentioning modern crime novels in a post about a reprint?
Well when I was looking at what other reviewers had said about Bennett’s book, I noticed that the phrase ‘oddly structured,’ cropped up a lot, one way or another. It made me think two opposing things simultaneously. Is the book being regarded this way because it deviates a lot from the modern crime novel? Are such books not being written? Yet on the other hand, going back to the modern novels I mentioned above, there are modern examples of crime writers shaking up the structure of the mystery novel. These books have largely gone down well, so maybe we are more receptive, at the moment, to the more experimental literary ancestors of Horowitz and Pavesi?
The experimental nature of Bennett’s novel is one of the reasons I think it is such a strong book, not least because it is a successful experiment! Her story changes the nature of the question most mystery novels tend to ask and answer. It is not a standard whodunit, nor is it even a howdunit, but it is a who-was-done-in book. The identity of the missing man is not disclosed until the end of the tale and the reader has to figure out which of the four men is this person. Hiding this one piece of information radically alters the nature of the mystery novel being presented and done well it provides a refreshing variation to the classic crime reader’s palette. However, Bennett’s book is not the first to do this. Patricia McGerr, amongst others, came before her. Yet I stand by my claim, that I first made in my review of Bennett’s book, that Bennett does it better.
Writing a mystery novel which experiments with the structure or conventions of the genre is a risky business, and the bigger the concepts you’re turning upside down, the bigger the risk becomes. Both McGerr and Bennett deliver retrospective stories in which a death occurs and then the narrative rewinds the story to a certain point and then effectively hits play, so we see the events running up to the death. Within this should be clues as to who did the deed, which is then revealed at the end. This is perhaps one of the riskiest experiments to do in a mystery novel, as there is a real chance of frustrating or boring some readers, who want a more direct clear-cut investigation to follow. There may even be a disinclination towards having to sift through the retrospective narrative for the relevant clues and pieces of information. I have to admit this has been an issue for me with some of McGerr’s works, and that is from someone who loves unusual mystery novels!
However, what impressed me with Bennett’s book is that I did not encounter these difficulties. In particular I felt her novel was proof that a character driven tale does not always entail that the puzzle is sacrificed to the characters. The key to solving the puzzle in Bennett’s mystery is very much rooted within those characters and the story they have to tell. Within her retrospective narrative Bennett plays remarkably fair with the reader and I would even say that it strongly encourages prediction-making tendencies within the reader.
Added to this, what also makes Bennett’s experiment a success is her writing style. She avoids long monologues and instead the retrospective narrative includes a mixture of witness voices and her decision to focus the plot around the Wade family was a sound one. This family with its Austen-esque qualities, is one you want to spend time with. For readers who enjoy dialogue filled books, then this one will also appeal, and the quality of the dialogue is another reason this story works so well. I read online that someone felt this novel had a play-like feel to it, an idea which I think fits with the piece, and it could actually make a rather good theatre production. So I was not too surprised to learn that Bennett adapted the book in 1958 for Kraft Theatre, (which was an American TV anthology series) and the final product even featured a young William Shatner.
So to sum up I feel Bennett’s book ticks a lot of boxes. It offers an unusual premise and an experimental structure, which works and does not frustrate the reader. Bennett provides many engaging characters, which you are drawn to through their well-crafted dialogue. Her writing style has a pleasing note of understatement and the ending of the mystery is satisfying, with a tantalisingly closed, yet open denouement.
The Man Who Didn’t Fly has missed out on one award already, don’t let it miss out on a second!
(Yep the ROY awards have now descended into emotional blackmail…!)