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.