When George Furnace crashed his small plane near the Baston Aero Club, the crash seemed inexplicable to his friends and colleagues. Suicide? Perhaps, though those friends didn't think much of the idea. An accident? No, Furnace was a top-notch pilot and the plane was in excellent condition. Murder? How, pray tell? When he crashed, Furnace was all by himself in his two-seater single-engine plane. That's why the coroner's jury brought in a verdict of "death by misadventure." And then the autopsy results came back...
That's the mystery at the heart of Death of an Airman, a 1934 Golden Age classic by Christopher St. John Sprigg, brought back by the British Library's Crime Classics series. These books are published in the United States by the Poisoned Pen Press, which provided me with a copy for this review. Death of an Airman is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
When Death of an Airman was written, in 1934, aviation – especially private aviation – was still something of a novelty. Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic had happened only a few years earlier. So there was still something romantic in the notion of learning to fly one of the early flying machines, very often in a small, two-seater plane, where both pilot and passenger were largely exposed to the elements.
George Furnace's death might well have remained on the books as an accident, if it weren't for the presence on the scene of an Australian bishop, Edwin Marriott, the Bishop of Cootamundra. The bishop was himself learning to fly a plane and actually witnessed the fatal crash; he was among the first people to arrive on the scene. It was because the bishop was an observant man that he questioned how Furnace's death could have happened. It was because of the bishop's interference that the authorities went ahead with an investigation that included an autopsy. And that, ultimately, uncovered something quite different - yes, and seemingly impossible as well.
This really is a delightful book. The characters are clearly defined. There are plenty of clues - if you know where to look. This new edition of Death of an Airman, by Christopher St. John Sprigg, also has an introduction written by British mystery author Martin Edwards. Sprigg wrote only a half-dozen or so mysteries during his short lifetime; a devoted Communist, he joined the International Brigade fighting in Spain against Franco, and was killed in action in 1937, when he was not quite 30. His mysteries deserve the attention of a new generation of readers who enjoy traditional, well-plotted and lively crime stories.
UPDATED to correctly identify the Poisoned Pen Press as the U. S. publisher of the British Library Crime Classics (originally misidentified as the U. S. distributor).