Christopher St John Sprigg: Death of an Airman

DeathofanAirmanAnother 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.

Training-HertsAndEssex-1935-17534

Lessons would have cost the Bishop around £1 an hour (image from http://www.aviationancestry.co.uk/)

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
ISBN: 9780712356152
288 pages


See also:

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.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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12 Responses to Christopher St John Sprigg: Death of an Airman

  1. Pingback: Book of the month: November 2015 | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  2. I think this is my favourite of the British Library series to date. Loads of fun.

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  3. Looking back at my own review, I think my only gripe with this book is the lack of involvement the Bishop has in the case, that and I think the pace could have been a bit quicker.

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  4. JJ says:

    Still haven’t got round to this, but it is on The List. It seems that these British Library repirtins are getting more into a groove of classic crime now, having started off a bit sensation-ish; and, of course, the couple of impossible crimes they have coming is always going to be a cause for celebration in my house…

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  5. Guy Savage says:

    Thanks for the mention. The shift here–we begin by thinking it’s the Bishop’s case–reminds me of The Hog’s Back Mystery–I thought Ursula Stone would be the amateur detective. Of the entire series, so far my favourite is Antidote to Venom.

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  6. Pingback: British Library Crime Classics – which is your favourite? | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  7. Sounds great Rich – I have not in fact got any of the British Library series (except as gifts) – subject to parallel conversations about the BL series, this may be the one I start with. Ta 🙂

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  8. This sounds great fun – but I am also glad to see you speaking out about the economics of the 1930s drugs trade! I love Murder Must Advertise, but the details of the distribution were ridiculous. I could have thought up a better system in the space of an hour. No idea of market forces, HR, worker management, secrecy or confidentiality – there must be a dissertation for someone in this area.

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