Death of an Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg

Death of an Airman cover

Death of an Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg was first published in 1934 but I read the British Library Crime Classics reprint. In fact due to circumstances beyond my control I read this book from cover to cover all in one sitting, it took me about five hours and it made my wait bearable, in fact I really enjoyed this one.

Edwin Marriott is an Australian bishop who is on holiday in England. As his diocese in Australia is massive he has decided that he’ll have to learn to fly so that he can visit his flock. He has chosen take lessons at Baston Aero Club which has quite a mixture of flying instructors including a World War 1 flying ace.

It’s evident from early on that there are tensions at the flying school and it’s not long before there’s a death. Is it just an accident, murder or suicide? The bishop helps to get to the bottom of it all aided by Inspector Bray of Scotland Yard.

I was kept guessing all along and had no idea what was going on, the plot is really convoluted and it’s just such a shame that the author had such a short career as his life was cut short when he was killed fighting in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. His real name was Christopher Caudwell.

The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny

The Nature of the Beast cover

Well, I can hardly believe it but I’ve managed to catch up with Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series. The Nature of the Beast is her latest and it’s set in Three Pines, that seemingly idyllic location which is actually quite dangerous to live in – given the murder count over recent years.

Armand Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie have retired and have chosen to settle in Three Pines. They are well known in the village and in turn they know the villagers well, so when a wee boy known for his wild imagination and tall tales rushes around shouting about a huge gun and a monster in the woodland surrounding Three Pines, nobody is particularly bothered, it’s just what he does.

So everybody ignores him, and that’s something that they live to regret. I really enjoyed this book although it is quite a bit darker and more unsettling in atmosphere than I usually go for.

In fact at one point I did think that the plot was maybe just a wee bit far-fetched, so I was completely flabbergasted to read in the author’s note at the end of the book that it was based on truth, with Gerald Bull being a real person, who was involved in weapons design and was happy to design and build weapons for anyone who would pay him. He designed Project Babylon for Saddam Hussein. I certainly didn’t hear anything about it in the news at the time. But if you’re interested you can read a New York Times article from 1990 about it here.

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay is the second book which I’ve read by the author. I wasn’t too keen on the previous one but I found this one to be much better. It was first published in 1935 but my copy is one of those British Library Crime Classics re-prints.

The setting is a female college in Oxford. That happens to be a favourite setting for me and when I think about it I can trace my love of females in an educational establishment right back to the good old Enid Blyton Malory Towers series.

Four of Persephone College’s undergraduates are intent on forming a Lode League, a sort of secret society, apparently they are popular amongst the students. Their meeting place is on the corrugated iron roof of the college boathouse which is on the River Cherwell.

When they see a canoe coming along the river they’re worried that it might be the Bursar, a woman that they have a very low opinion of. At first they think the canoe is empty but as it floats closer they realise that someone is inside it. That someone turns out to be none other than the hated bursar. Is it foul play, did she commit suicide or was it simply an undergraduate prank which got out of hand? – as the police think.

Mavis Doriel Hay only wrote three books, this one being the second. I found the first one Murder Underground to be less than enthralling but this one which was published just one year later is such an improvement on the first one. Perhaps it was just that the setting was such a familiar one to her and the characters seem more realistic and natural with authentic banter amongst each other.

Coincidentally Death on the Cherwell was published in the same year as Dorothy L. Sayers very much more famous Gaudy Night. The settings are the same, only the actual colleges being different. There were only two women’s colleges in Oxford at that time apparently and it seems that Sayers and Hay used their own alma maters as settings, obviously just changing the names.

Hay only wrote one more crime fiction book but she did write a lot of books about rural crafts, which she was very keen on. She was instrumental in the resurgence of quilting in Wales.

She had three brothers, one was killed in 1916 at the Battle of Jutland, her youngest brother was killed when his Tiger Moth crashed in the Malayan jungle in 1939, in 1940 a third brother who had been captured by the Japanese died on the Thailand-Burma railway and as if that wasn’t bad enough – her Canadian husband who had joined the RAF was killed in a flying accident in 1943. It’s a wonder she stayed sane.

The Hand in the Glove by Rex Stout

I’ve only read a few of Stout’s Nero Wolfe books before and liked them but I enjoyed this one just as much, it was first published in 1937. The Hand in the Glove has a lot in common with what we tend to think of as traditional British murder mysteries, involving a big country house party, and lots of murder suspects, in fact the whole thing was quite similar to Wentworth’s The Chinese Shawl which I read just before this one.

The story begins in Manhattan, where Theodolinda Bonner, Dol to her friends, is a partner in a detective agency, but the action swiftly moves to a large New England house. The house belongs to P.L. Storrs, a financier who is in control of the orphaned Dol’s money, until she comes of age – in 6 months time.

The fact that Storrs disapproves of Dol’s involvment in a detective agency doesn’t stop him from secretly hiring her to dig up some dirt on one of the other guests. George Ranth is a sort of religious guru, and Mrs Storrs has fallen under his spell, it looks like Ranth is after the Storrs’ money. When there’s a murder Dol becomes a suspect along with all the other guests and the detectives of the New York Bureau of Homicide don’t want any help from a fiesty young ‘she-dick’ – but they get it anyway.

It’s a good mystery with humour too, what more can you want on a cold dark winter night!

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

This one was first published in 1930 and is apparently the first one in which Miss Marple appears, it has been dramatised for TV in fact I’ve seen it umpteen times but I still enjoyed the book. The story is told by the vicar of St Mary Mead, Mr Len Clements but the whole book is very dialogue heavy, which must have made dramatising it so easy as Christie is very good at dialogue with a perfect ear for the differences in speech of the various classes of those days.

Colonel Protheroe is much disliked in the village so when he is found dead in the vicar’s study, sitting at his desk, there are plenty of possibilities as to who the culprit might be.

The relationship between the vicar and his much younger wife Griselda is a lovely one with Griselda’s light-hearted personality – on paper everything that a vicar’s wife shouldn’t be – perfectly complementing her husband’s necessarily more serious attitude, but he is obviously besotted with her, a great couple of characters.

In general the books are always better than the TV shows but I must admit to loving the period clothes, jewellery, handbags and hats, all very stylish, whether the setting is 1930s, 40s, or even 1950s, although that isn’t my favourite decade.

If you haven’t seen the most recent TV Murder at the Vicarage you can see it on you tube below.

No Wind of Blame by Georgette Heyer

This book is a murder mystery and I must say that I prefer these ones to Heyer’s romances, but I’m not a huge fan of romances anyway. I didn’t read the blurb on the back of this book until I had finished it, and I’m thankful that I didn’t as it gives away part of the mystery. Why do they do that? The main detective in this book is Inspector Hemingway but as he doesn’t really have a huge personality I found that he didn’t contribute much to the flavour of the whole thing.

Heyer manages to combine murder mysteries and humour successfully which is a nice dimension to her books and I can’t think of any other crime novelist who attempts comedy. Well, I suppose Dorothy Sayers did but not to the same extent.

At 348 pages this is quite a thick book as vintage crime goes, and I had put off reading it for a while for this reason. But it was actually a really quick read and enjoyable. It was first published in 1939.

I wouldn’t call the first paragraph an interest grabber: “The Prince is coming by the one-forty-five. That means he’ll be here in time for tea. Well, I do call that nice.”

This is a classic country house mystery, usually a good start for any thriller. The house, called Palings, is owned by Mrs Ermyntrude Carter who had been a chorus girl in her day, and she has a husband who spends his time squandering his wife’s money and is a general liability. His cousin Mary is also part of the household.

The rest of the characters consist of the neighbours, the local doctor
and Vicky who is Mrs Carter’s daughter and fancies herself as a bit of an actress.

The crime doesn’t occur until about a third of the way through the book so part of the mystery is figuring out who the victim is going to be, as well as who is the culprit.

Georgette Heyer seems to be unable to write anything which doesn’t have a dollop of romance in it but it doesn’t descend into the gloopy, schmalzy sort.

Dorothy L. Sayers said Miss Heyer’s characters and dialogue are an abiding delight to me… I have seldom met people to whom I have taken so violent a fancy from the word “Go”.

One thing I must mention is that the only other Ermintrude that I have ever come across before is of course the cow in The Magic Roundabout. O.K. the spelling is different. But at the beginning I couldn’t help thinking of Ermintrude the cow whenever the character of Ermyntrude Carter was speaking.

If you want a reminder of that iconic BBC programme for children of all ages, have a look here.