First published in 1934, Death of an Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg impressed no less an authority on crime fiction than the crime reviewer for the Sunday Times: Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of amateur detective Lord Peter Whimsey.
When the Bishop of Cootamundra, Australia, goes to the Baston Aero Club, England, he expects to get flying lesson.
Unfortunately, shortly before his first lesson, his would-be flying instructor (a first-rate pilot) manages, in full view of quite a few people, to crash his otherwise perfectly working plane. Pronounced dead on impact, the inquest returns a verdict of Death by Misadventure.
The Bishop, Dr. Marriott, is not convinced and has a word with local Inspector Creighton. The good Inspector is convinced enough to order an autopsy which reveals something else. But was it suicide or murder?
Of course, given that it’s a Golden Age detective novel, suicide is out of the question, according to whichever set of Rules for Detective Fiction you care to follow. The problem with the murder-theory, though, is that even the independent technical expert from the Department of the Inspector of Accidents in the Air Ministry can’t find any sign of sabotage in the wreckage of the plane. He suspects human error on the part of the pilot.
The other problem for the detectives is that they just can’t see a motive for murder. Suicide, conceivably, though no one who knew the man agree.
Sayers’ opinion was that Death of an Airman is a “most ingenious and exciting plot, full of good puzzles and discoveries and worked out among a varied cast of entertaining characters”. I concur, from the mild-mannered bishop to Lady Crumbles, a formidable organiser of charity-events. It was even good a second time around, when I’d mostly forgotten the solution, and had forgotten Lady Crumbles and her Airies (her suggestion for a Brownies’ Flying Corps).
I think that the only drawback, really, was that more was not made of the good Bishop in untangling the mystery. The police rather took over the whole investigation – probably just as well, since having the aeroplanes widened the field of operation. And, I suppose, the Bishop reminds me a little of Mycroft Holmes: good at armchair-detection, but prefers to leave the running around to Sherlock.
All in all, though, a very satisfying read: Better than The Incredible Crime, not quite as good as Murder in Captivity.