#237: Death of an Airman (1934) by Christopher St. John Sprigg

Death of an AirmanAn 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…

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars

See also

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.

~

I submit this book for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Plane.

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s The Baddington Horror because both feature a judge in an important role.

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24 thoughts on “#237: Death of an Airman (1934) by Christopher St. John Sprigg

    • You could do much worse, Sergio (as Rich’s review of The Incredible Crime attests…!); hope you enjoy it when you eventually get there.

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  1. On the whole I enjoyed this one when I reviewed it in the early days of my blog. I think that mildly disappointed me was the restricted and limited role of the amateur sleuth, as really they don’t do very much to further the case. However, like you I did enjoy his writing style and would like to give other stories of his a try.

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    • It’s weird, because I never expected the Bishop to play that huge a role — he just never struck me as that sort of a character (he’s far too meek from first appearance, for one). But I can understand how one would be disappointed if going in anticipating a more amateur investigation; it’s really very much not that kind of book at all (it reminds me of Inspector Joseph French a bit, actually…).

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  2. There’s a couple of Sprigg books out there. The aforementioned Fatality In Fleet Street and Amazon has an odd looking ebook of The Corpse With The Sun-Burned Face – annotated edition, apparently, but the sample chapter looks clean. Might be worth 99p…

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  3. It really helps that Sprigg, before being bitten by the Marxist bug and abandoning writing to fight and die in the Spanish Civil War

    That’s what’s put me off reading this one. I feared there’d be heavy-handed political sub-texts. But it sounds like my fears may have been unjustified?

    And I do love aviation mysteries.

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    • He takes a few swipes at empty-headed aristocrats, but nothing more than the usual fun-poking done in this kind of thing — any significance would definitely be applied once you knew of his political leanings rather than making you suspect his political leanings were you unaware of them in advance…if you see what I mean.

      In short: no, no political subtext. Mainly just a fun ol’ time.

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    • Yeah, that seems to be a common expectation, springing from the description on the back of how him and Bray “must work together to solve the case” or something similar — no mention of poor Creighton at all!

      The humour was very good, I agree, and I’d welcome any of the other OOP Spriggs if the British Library have the rights — he’s one of the stronger entries in this series, in my opinion, and I’m very intrigued to read more.

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  4. This one of the BL titles I looked at and then passed on, no idea why exactly beyond a whim. Reading your keen reaction to it now, I think I might just reconsider.

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    • Yeah, with so many books catching the eye, one often has to make a bit of a snap decision about ‘yay’ or ‘nay’…and I’m sure we’ve all repented at leisure over a hasty ‘yay’ and pondered at length a ‘nay’ we’d happily ‘yay’ now. Thankfully, this is easily available and you need not ponder it for too long, nor worry about having to track down a copy. Life is good!

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  5. You confused me for a moment with the short story, but you were, of course, referring to the one published in the recent locked room anthology. Anyway, let’s hope the British Library decides to republish all of Sprigg’s work. There are five or six additional mystery novels left and would love to have another reason to yell at the sky how I can’t keep up with all these releases.

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  6. Though his mystery novels were published under his real name, his serious works on Philosophy and Marxism were published under the pen name Christopher Caudwell. This seems strange as generally the reverse is the case. However, this was as per his wish since “he was afraid of spoiling his reputation as a writer of thrillers.” (source: Marxism and the Philosophy of Science by Helena Sheehan.)

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  7. Thanks for the review, and I felt encouraged that I wasn’t the only one who wondered if it wasn’t entirely fair-play. Or perhaps it could have been slightly more fair-play…? 🙂

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    • There would probably have been a way to make this a little more fair play, yes — a lot of information is dumped on the reader very late on, and even then it doesn’t really point too directly with certainty…one must have a very specialised understanding, I’d wager, in order to explain exactly what happened ahead of time.

      SPOILERS FOLLOW
      Though, let’s be honest, how many times has a GAD writer employed the old “I knew you several years ago under a different name” and the person so-claiming turned out to be wrong? There’s a nice piece of misdirection in there with regards this, but that’s a heavy hint if ever I read one…!
      SPOILERS END

      But, no, I don’t think its fair play in the strictest sense; in fairness, I don’t think Sprigg intended it to be 🙂

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  8. I enjoyed both this review and the comments. This is a book I recommended to the British Library, though I should say that plenty of the books in the series are not my picks, while plenty of my picks don’t get…picked. Fatality in Fleet Street is already available, as has been mentioned, from a very good small press, Ostara. Speaking for myself, I didn’t care for Corpse with a Sunburned Face, and had mixed feelings about Death of a Queen. But some of the others are worthy of consideration, and there is a terrific Sprigg short story in Miraculous Mysteries.

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    • Well, I commend your excellent taste! Lovely to see books such as this, which show off forgotten GAD fiction so well, made available — long may you and the British Library continue…

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