The Man Who Didn’t Fly by Margot Bennett – a 1955 novel of mystery and more reprinted in the British Library Crime Classics series

The Man Who Didn’t Fly by Margot Bennett

In some ways this 1955 murder mystery is a curiousity; an idea for a missing man in the face of multiple deaths was daringly original, made possible by a relatively new idea of commercial travel. As Martin Edwards points out in his Introduction to this reprint in the British Library Crime Classics series, its main premise is such an original  idea that it defies much description. The product of an exceptionally talented writer, Margot Bennett did not produce many novels, but achieved success with those which did appear. This novel indeed narrowly missed two crime writing awards on either side of the Atlantic  in the first years after its publication. It is in some ways an unsettling read, in which the relevant men are genuinely missed, and not just as a potential victim. They are also described as very human, full of contradictions, rather than being uniformly hateful, pleasant or just wealthy. 

The basic idea of this novel is simple: a small plane containing a pilot and three passengers crashes into the Irish sea, killing all on board. The problem of the novel is to identify those passengers, as four men were booked to fly, only three actually got on to the plane, and yet four men are missing. Exactly who was on the plane and therefore died is the question of the novel, and what exactly happened to the fourth man. It is not a straightforward mystery, but still has a cast of people to be investigated, questioned, given the chance to tell their story. The format is unusual, but ultimately successful in bringing characters to life. I found it an engaging tale, full of the telling details of life that make it so vivid. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this exceptional book.

Part of the problem is that the plane in question was totally destroyed in a “fireball” which destroyed any chance of retrieving bodies and identifying information. The only option is to discover exactly who boarded the small plane at “Brickford Airport (which) wasn’t much more than a meadow cut by a tarmac path, with a few sheds clustering at one end”. There were small charter planes and a flying club based there; not much by way of facilities or ways of identification of passengers. The one mechanic present just before the ill fated plane departed has been questioned multiple times, and can only recite his response. The pilot had remarked to him that there were only three passengers out of the expected four, and that they would depart without the missing person.The problem is that the missing person has not turned up despite extensive police searching. Four passengers had been booked to travel, only three boarded the plane, but four men were missing. The coroner or insurance companies will not act without identification – “deaths must be documented, and no man is allowed a death certificate without first dying for it”. So the attempt to identify the three men who actually boarded the plane as opposed to the fourth who has disappeared just as completely must continue.  

It is, as Edwards writes, difficult to say much about this book without revealing significant details. Suffice to say that it is full of atmosphere: of men wearing suits and hats, people smoking at every opportunity, limited opportunities to communicate. The characters are well drawn with real depth, even when they are frustratingly unsure of details. I recommend this book for its originality and so much more, a worthy addition to the series of reprints. 

The Widow of Bath by Margot Bennett – a classic crime novel from 1952 reprinted in the British Library Crime Classics series

The Widow of Bath by Margot Bennett

If you like your mysteries with a shoal of red herrings, this classic novel of 1952 now reprinted in the wonderful British Library Crime Classics series is definitely one for you. Martin Edwards, in his fascinating Introduction, appreciates the book as one of the talented Margot Bennett’s novels. He quotes Julian Symons “She uses as mere incidents tricks that would serve other writers as material for a plot.” Bennett lays out so many ideas that would normally dominate an entire mystery, her characters have got back stories, she throws in possible solutions as fast as she introduces new questions. There is the impossible murder without a body, unshakable alibis, the non-functioning telephone and the dog that may have barked in the night. There are many suspects, known and unknown to the main character, who himself has a significant record. There are cultural references to the 1950s, such as the after effects of War on a small coastal town, the self-satisfaction those who campaign to keep it ‘unspoilt’, ignoring the growth of housing and the dubious supply of workers to the town’s amenities. This is a novel of so many possibilities all held expertly together with a firm hand, while the central mystery of an infamous murder plays out. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent mystery.

The novel begins in the restaurant of a hotel.  Hugh Everton is a young man who is obviously compiling some sort of report on the establishment as he scribbles notes to himself. Having asked for a chicken pie he is served a substitute “He ate his veal-and-ham pie without tasting it; this was easy enough, as it had no taste.” Moving onto the bar he encounters a young woman he knows, Jan, and enquires after her uncle, a retired judge, named Bath. When the older man enters in the company of his younger wife, Lucy, Everton exchanges some barbed comments with her, as well as being introduced to their companions, Atkinson and Gerald Cady. Everton obviously has history with Lucy and is convinced that Atkinson is in fact an imposter, as he has bad memories of a man who resembles him in so many ways. It is when the party retires to the judge’s house that a murder occurs that is remarkable in many ways, not least the speedy disappearance of the body. Thus, Lucy becomes the Widow of Bath, and a complex and multi–layered mystery evolves in which Everton is not the only one in danger.

This is an admirable book in which the reader is drawn along by sheer momentum. There are so many ways in which the author draws attention to other possibilities without diverging too much from the central questions that it is extremely skillfully written. As Everton tries to investigate a murder, he encounters those who think they know something, as well as those who make themselves scarce at the thought of involvement. There are important social elements of the time thrown in to reflect the time; the public obsession with true crime, the appearance and disappearance of those who struggle to cope, the urge to follow ambitions to do more. I recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys classic mysteries as well as those who enjoy a book with real insight into times past, as it was written in an age similar to our own in some ways, but radically different in others.