Another lovely rediscovery from the British Library, graced with a nice vintage-feel cover by Chris Andrews.
The Australian Bishop of Cootamundra turns up to start a course of flying lessons at Baston Aero Club, only to witness a tragic accident which kills one of the Club’s instructors. But was it an accident? The Bishop has had basic medical training and spots an anomaly in the rigor mortis displayed by the corpse. His suspicions are enough to keep the case open, and the police soon uncover both an impossible crime and a link to a pan-European drugs ring.
The case is cracked by a mix of police footwork and occasional inspirations from the Bishop, and the story makes the most of its aeronautical setting (the author was a plane buff) – ending with a finely satirical fund-raising air show.
My only critique would be the implausibility of the distribution network employed by the smugglers. Last year I read John Rhode’s A. S. F., which included an even more arcane method of smuggling and distributing drugs. And the intrigue in Murder Must Advertise also stretched my credulity. Perhaps the inter-war drug business genuinely relied on massively inventive and resourceful individuals to do their distribution in silly ways, but surely it’s more likely it worked on armies of expendable petty criminals taking risks? And equally, surely their customers were more anonymous and larger in number? Anyway, it would be inconsistent to condemn one Golden Age title for its lack of realism whilst letting The Red House Mystery off the hook, so we’ll let the question lie.
All in all an excellent book, very much of its time. If you enjoy this one, I can also recommend his Fatality in Fleet Street published by Oleander Press.
Death of an Airman
Christopher St John Sprigg
First published 1935, Hutchinson
This edition: British Library Publishing, 1 June 2015
In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: The idea of the air-show and the Aerodrome in this sense is a thing of the past – especially the race between five amateur pilots! – but it’s a part of the era that was rarely visited by mystery fiction. I can’t think of another example apart from one or two of Ed Hoch’s Sam Hawthorne stories.
His Futile Preoccupations: 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.