Monday, September 7, 2020

The Man Who Didn't Fly - Margot Bennett

I've been particularly lucky with the British Library Crime Classics that I've picked up recently, so far they've been remarkably good, and 'The Man Who Didn't Fly' was a particularly good choice to follow Anthony Rolls 'Family Matters' with as both of them have a slightly unusual structure.

Where 'Family Matters' gives us the run up to the murder, making it clear who the victim will be, and why, but giving us a selection of possible murderers, 'The Man Who Didn't Fly' gives us four potential victims in the form of a logic puzzle. The four men had arranged to fly to Dublin on a private charter plane, but only three get on it. When the plane crashes over the Irish sea with no survivors we know the pilot was there, but without knowing who the missing man was nobody can say with any certainty who the other three were, which means non of them can be officially declared dead.

The police start investigating, but what they hope might be a simple matter turns out to be anything but, especially as the fourth man hasn't come forward. Has he done a bunk, or is he dead too? As nobody particularly noticed who did or didn't get on the plane all the police have to go on is a handful of doubtful clues gleaned from half remembered conversations. The end result is the sort of logic puzzle that has always defeated me, so I happily left the working out to the characters on the page. If you are good at logic puzzles this should be an extra bit of fun for you though.

Meanwhile more about the characters of the four men, and what had happened in the days immediately before the flight slowly emerge. The Wade family is at the centre of this, and like the four men who have disappeared the Wade's have things to hide, but one of the men was a friend and neighbour - rich but with business problems, another a romantic interest for 20 year old Hester Wade - heartily disapproved of by her father, the third is their slightly odd lodger who's erratic behaviour has to be a cause for concern, and the fourth a trusted, but not necessarily trustworthy financial adviser.

There's also the question of why the Wade's are being so cagey and what they might have to hide. Hester Wade is the heart of the book; a medical student old enough to understand her father's weaknesses, and to realise that she is the grown up of the family, young enough to find it all completely overwhelming. She is a brilliant portrait of a young woman who's having to do all the emotional labour and is well and truly over it by the end of the book.

The question of who is dead and why is an appealing puzzle with some entertaining twists, but the real strength of the book is the way it builds up the characters of the missing men and those they leave behind. What will happen to the Wade's is what had me reading late into the night.

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