Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Death Of An Airman - Christopher St John Sprigg

'Cosy Crime'; I can't remember when book shops started categorising books as such, it's not a term I like - though it's an effective description, but it is the end of the crime fiction pool that I'm happy to dip into. A puzzle, a certain amount of suspense and tension, some humour, and a crime committed for practical reasons - these are the things that keep me entertained.

Golden age crime fiction provides all of that, along with drawing something of a veil over the gruesome details that would keep a reader like me awake at night. 'Death of an Airman' is a particularly ingenious puzzle, though - and this might deserve a spoiler alert - the question of when rigor mortis sets in which so puzzles the investigators seems obvious to anyone with years of forensic dramas behind them.

Dorothy L. Sayers seems to have been a big fan of Sprigg, who's own history is quite colourful in itself. A well received writer who became a Marxist and died fighting in Spain as part of the International Brigade just before he was 30. His books were not just out of print, but according to Martin Edwards introduction all but impossibly hard to find - he finally got to read a copy of this one due to the kind help of a collector. Fortunately the British Library have done us all the favour of making it easily available again.

This is a slight deviation, but after some conversation about the recent BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence books (I quite enjoyed them, my friends not so much due to the liberties taken with the original text) it was generally agreed that looking a bit further afield for inspiration and adaptable material wouldn't go amiss. 'Death of an Airman' would make brilliant television.

The action mostly takes place around Baston airfield. An Australian Bishop has turned up for flying lessons (a huge diocese makes flying between parishes a sensible option) where he's unlucky enough to witness the tragic death of George Furness, one of the instructors and a talented pilot. The question is, was it an accident, suicide, or murder... It's the bishop, who has a bit of medical experience, who notices the discrepancy over the rigor mortis times and quietly alerts the police.

Soon Scotland Yard are involved and a much wider criminal undertaking uncovered but who's running it, and just how many people are involved? It's a clever scheme, a good story, and has a satisfactory ending. Sprigg allows himself some funny lines and situations by way of light relief but never distracts from the seriousness of the crime. Setting the murder in a community of aviators adds a certain romance and heroism as well. There is the feeling that all these people treat life and death as a slight matter - as a generation that survived the First World War might, they're not callous, it's just that they've already seen such a lot.

All in all it's another excellent addition to a series that's proving to be consistently enjoyable and entertaining. Next up I have a couple more Farjeon's to look forward to as well as 'Resorting to Murder' the collection of holiday mysteries put by for either a very rainy or (less likely) a very sunny day's enjoyment.