“Hard cash is more than coronets.”
Death of an Airman by Christopher St. John Sprigg is an original, lively, witty crime tale set in an eccentrically managed flying school. The book, published in 1935, is another entry in my current fascination with the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Sprigg, a Marxist, and a member of the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, was killed at age 29, and he wrote just a few books during his short life. The introduction from Martin Edwards mentions Sprigg’s works which flounder in “obscurity” and the expense of rare used copies. We’re lucky to see Death of an Airman republished by the British Library Crime Classics/Poisoned Pen Press, and I hope that we will see more of Sprigg’s books in the future. Death of an Airman was delightful–light, funny and yet also ingenious–a perfect example of the intellectual exercise generated by crime fiction of this period.
The story opens with the arrival from Australia of the Bishop of Cootamundra, Edwin Marriott. He’s in Baston, England and plans to take flying lessons in order to reach the outer reaches of his Australian diocese. The manager of the Baston Aero club, Sally Sackbut is a bit worried that the Bishop hails from Australia:
“I hope you don’t get fighting drunk? Our last Australian smashed every glass in the place the day he went solo.”
On the day that the Bishop arrives at the air club, he witnesses a strange event involving the club’s best instructor, Furnace, performing an “alarming manoeuvre” in a plane. The atmosphere at the club, already established as eccentric, morphs into something a little more troubling. But then the very next day, a horrible crash occurs. A question remains: did the pilot commit suicide or was this a tragic accident? The dead man seems an unlikely candidate for suicide but all the evidence states otherwise. Then the Bishop, left alone with the corpse for a short period of time, notices something peculiar…
Inspector Creighton is called to investigate this possible suicide, and his quest yields some strange evidence. Soon Inspector Bray from Scotland Yard becomes involved, and the crime takes on international proportions with Creighton investigating in Baston, and Bray travelling to France….
The author obviously had lots of fun writing the book, and this is clear from some of the descriptions of the cast of colourful characters and their tangled relationships. There’s the club’s manager, the frazzled Sally Sackbut, Lady Laura Vanguard who advertises beauty products, eager pupil Tommy Vane, the bombastic Lady Crumbles, long-distance flyer Captain Randall and his rival, the Transatlantic flyer, Dolly Angevin. Dogmas of class superiority can sometimes weigh down and ruin detective novels from this period, and while class issues exist here, they’re treated lightly–after all the author was a Marxist. So Lady Crumbles, for example, is largely seen as some sort of archaic being whose operations have little to do with the ‘real world’ or commerce and money making. Bray and Creighton, two men from vastly different backgrounds, make a good investigative team. Whereas Creighton had a “long apprenticeship in the ranks,” Bray was “intended for the law,” but “the post-war slump had made it impossible for him to support himself during that long probationary period of brieflessness which every barrister undergoes” :
Instead he had joined the C.I.D., which then, for the first time in its history, was endeavouring to get into its ranks men of the professional classes. Bray might have been a mediocre success in the legal profession–he certainly had a lucid and logical mind, even if he lacked other of the qualities of a great advocate–but he made a first-rate detective.
The humour creeps in through several characters including with the formidable Countess of Crumbles who promotes the Air Fairies–“a particularly repellent breed of Girl Guide”:
Now Lady Crumbles lived in a passionate whirl of organization. Charity matinée succeeded to hospital ball with the inevitability of the seasons, and people instinctively (but vainly) put protecting hands over their cheque-books when she approached. Vainly, because Lady Crumbles’ masterful and obtuse personality had the effect of a tank, and to be perfectly candid, her figure was planned on similar lines, which made the joint effect the more overpowering
As with the Hog’s Back Mystery, the novel begins with one character as central and then as the crimes escalate, the focus changes. It appears at first as though the Bishop, who is the first person to notice that “there is some evil canker at Baston Aero Club,” is going to be our amateur detective, and while he’s seminal to the investigation (at both the beginning and the end), his importance ‘slips’ as Creighton and Bray take over the case. Some important clues appear within the first few pages, and since we follow the investigation, step-by-step, we become armchair detectives with the means to solve the case if we put in the brainwork.
Finally, of course, the setting of Death of an Airman is unusual, and the book includes some glorious sections which describe flying. I don’t know if the author, Christopher St John Sprigg, was also a pilot, but this passage led me to suspect that he was:
The clouds soon parted and rippled below them like a loosely-woven counterpane. Roads, railways, streams, suddenly appeared sharp-edged across a gap in the billowing clouds. Or perhaps there loomed a firmly-rounded dark green of a copse. The windscreen in front of Lady Laura spattered suddenly with beads of moisture and rain. Water began to trickle steadily, flying backwards in a curve from the trailing edge of the upper wing.
Soon the aeroplane was hung suspended in a world of its own. Below, a white sea of cloud rippled. Around it other clouds flew past, tattered, ragged, and allowed frequent glimpses of the sun, which, when it appeared, painted the vague blue shadow from the aeroplane in fantastic magnification on the grey screen of the more solid cloud-banks below.