Death of an Airman – Christopher St John Sprigg – British Library Crime Classic

Another British Library Crime Classic, another murder mystery set in that Golden Age of Crime Fiction by an author that definitely deserves rediscovery.

I read this book while sitting in the sun at Wallington, a lovely National Property here in Northumberland.  A beautiful setting (though more chocolate would have been nice) to read an “ingenious” book, as Dorothy L Sayers apparently wrote in appreciation. A quick inspection of the introduction written, once more, by Martin Edwards, points out that it is impossible to reveal too much about the plot. Be assured that it is full of detail and twists, however, and takes a bit of following throughout.

This is a book set in the world of inter war aviation, when flying planes for more than simply getting from A to B was all the rage. Anyone with money and time could learn to fly a dazzling range of planes, at a time that records were still being broken for flying across oceans. This book is more concerned with more local flying feats, and even the most reluctant aviator (that would be me) can find much to enjoy in this book.

An Australian bishop finds his way to Baston Aero Club, intent on learning to fly a plane to get around his diocese. He is polite and quite taken with the manager, Sally Sackbut, who is driven to exasperation by the antics of the other instructors, pupils and people hanging around the base. These two are the first of the memorable characters to be found in this story, no mere murder mystery composed of puzzles and a confused detective. In this book there is quite the right combination of procedure, diversion of attention, crisis and murder. It has some very funny moments among the mayhem, as the local fund raising lady is described as a tank and just as difficult to avoid, as well as Sally’s outbursts and the bishop’s confusion about flying. Yes, it is difficult to write about this book without giving too much away, but I did enjoy the characters hugely, a factor which does not always feature in murder mysteries, even in this period.

Christopher St. John Sprigg apparently died just before he turned thirty in the Spanish Civil War, a convinced communist. He wrote seven detective novels which have been nearly impossible to find. I hope that the British Library has plans to bring out more of his books, possibly The Perfect Alibi which Sayers enthused about according to the introduction. I enjoyed this book, a worthy addition to this series, and  a very entertaining read for a summer afternoon (or any time really. With chocolate, obviously…)

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