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.

Death in a White Tie by Ngaio Marsh

Death in a White Tie cover

Death in a White Tie by the New Zealand author Ngaio Marsh was first published in 1938 but my copy is a 1949 reprint. It’s a Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn mystery and the setting is London high society where Lady Alleyn, the detective’s mother is going to be attending debutante balls, chaperoning the daughter of friends who are living abroad. It’s not something she’s looking forward to, the whole process is exhausting and she is a lot older than she was when she did it for her own daughter. It throws her into the society of old friends and it soon becomes apparent that not all is as it should be.

Alleyn is aware that there’s a blackmailer operating in London High Society, he has inside information and ends up attending some of the functions his mother goes to, in an attempt to unmask the blackmailer.

I enjoyed Death in a White Tie which kept me guessing and in some ways Marsh’s writing reminded me of A Game of Thrones as she had no hesitation in introducing the reader to a loveable character – only to dispatch him violently. That’s very different from Christie’s and even Sayers’s writing where you often don’t meet the victim until the body is found, or they are particularly unlikeable people.

I was interested in this passage:

How many of these women were what he still thought of as ‘virtuous’? And the debutantes? They had gone back to chaperones and were guided and guarded by women, many of whose own private lives would look ugly in this flood of hard lights that had been let in on Lord Robert’s world. The girls were sheltered by a convention for three months but at the same time they heard all sorts of things that would have horrified and bewildered his sister Mildred at their age. And he wondered if the Victorian and Edwardian eras had been no more than freakish incidents in the history of society and if their proprieties had been as artificial as the paint on a modern woman’s lips.

I think that’s a fair description of the Victorian and Edwardian era, but those years lasted so long that people forgot how bawdy and raucous society had been in earlier times. Writing like Chaucer’s would probably have shocked the Victorians rigid. Is all that Victorian prurience something we have to blame Prince Albert for? Was it the upsurge of a middle class due to industrialisation in Britain? Just wondering.

I know, I wandered again, but it’s an interesting subject. Getting back to the book, I think this is the best Ngaio Marsh book I’ve read so far.

Buried for Pleasure by Edmund Crispin

Buried for Pleasure was first published in 1948 and it’s a Gervase Fen mystery. If you enjoy wit and comedy served along with your crime fiction then this one will definitely be for you.

Gervase Fen is of course an Oxford professor but he has decided to branch out and run for parliament in the small rural constituency of Sanford Angelorm. The small town has more than its fair share of odd characters, which all adds to the fun.

Now for The Moving Toyshop by the same author, which I’ve just borrowed from the library.

I’m more or less on track to reach my goal of 100 books read this year. I did think that by this time I would have gone over 100 but the mild weather meant that I didn’t get as much reading done as usual. Also I’ve discovered that husbands when they’re retired (or maybe it’s just mine) take up quite a lot of your time, not that I’m complaining.

It’s now two weeks until Christmas so I have been busy blinging the place up, I might inflict some photos on you soon. I had intended to put a video of the garden on by now but it turned out that it was ten minutes long which is a bit problematical so I don’t know if that will happen now. Today we had our first snow of the winter but it didn’t lie and thankfully the east of Scotland has managed to dodge the worst of the stormy weather which has been battering the north and west of Scotland. It has been mainly grey and wet here, really dreich, so dark that you need to have lights on during the day so I’m pining for the 21st of this month, the winter solstice, when the daylight will begin to lengthen again. That date just cheers me up, just knowing that we’re on the right side of the year, as far as I’m concerned anyway.

Sweet Danger by Margery Allingham

This one was first published in 1933, so quite early in the character of Campion, I think he improved with maturity. This might be because when Allingham started writing these books she was parodying Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, so she had to go that bit further along the silly ass aristocratic road, and has Campion with a secretive background, close to royalty I’m sure, well his name is Albert!

Anyway, this one is more of an adventure story rather than murder mystery and for me it was quite convoluted, or maybe it’s just that my head isn’t quite geared up to anything that I have to think much about at the moment. In parts it reminded me of John Buchan’s books.

The small Balkan state of Averna was apparently gifted to the Huntingforest family by Richard I but over the years has been forgotten about. The European political situation means that Averna could become strategically important, so the British Government sends Campion to the village of Pontisbright in Suffolk to search for proof of ownership which is reputed to be hidden there.

I particularly enjoyed the characters of the Fitton family, happily more than a wee bit on the eccentric side and Amanda in particular being feisty and refreshingly ungirly, especially for 1933 and of course she has flame-coloured hair, no wonder Campion is smitten.

The Pit Prop Syndicate by Freeman Wills Crofts

This is the only book by Freeman Wills Crofts which is on Project Gutenberg. Of course it’s one of his first crime novels, dating from 1922, his books were published from 1920 until his death in 1957. I think he did improve over the years.

Seymour Merriman is in the wine trade and part of his job entails travelling around France and visiting vineyards. On one of his travels his motorbike runs out of petrol in a rural district, stranding him in what he thinks is the middle of nowhere, but he discovers a tree felling business nearby and walks there, in the hope that they will be able to sell him some petrol.

On the road down to the offices Merriman meets a young woman and she arranges for him to get some petrol but Merriman’s suspicions are raised by the strange movements of one of the lorries which was being used at the tree felling business. He’s determined to find out what’s really going on.

Around about half way through this book I started to get the feeling that it was beginning to drag but almost as soon as I thought that the whole thing was enlivened by the appearance of Inspector Willis of Scotland Yard.

My one gripe is the romantic element, I’m really happier to have my vintage crime sans romance, but a lot of people must see it as a plus, publishers included. Just think of all the episodes of Morse which involve Morse and love interest, I could just do without it. Maybe it’s my age! No – scrub that – it’s just that I’m not much into romantic fiction, unless it comes with a big dose of humour.

As I said though, The Pit Prop Syndicate was Wills Crofts’s first foray into fiction and it’ll be interesting to see how his writing improves over the years, and of course, as I downloaded this onto my Kindle for free, everything’s hunky dory, especially as I don’t have to find shelf space for another book.

If you’re interested you can download it here.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe

This is a book which I borrowed from my local library entirely because it’s one of those ‘cultural tumbleweed moments’ for me. Do you know what I mean? It’s something which is often referred to because we are all supposed to have experienced it and for some reason there are always things which have just passed me by – or I’ve passed them by, hence that feeling of complete ignorance whenever the subject comes up.

So I thought it was high time I got around to reading The Murders in the Rue Morgue especially as vintage crime is one of my favourite sorts of reading matter. There are two other short stories in the book – The Mystery of Marie Roget and The Purloined Letter.

Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1809 and this short story was first published in 1841. It’s generally described as the first real detective story and Dupin the detective is a type similar to Sherlock Holmes. Poe seems to have set the pattern for the brilliantly observant detective with a helpful partner which so many other writers have copied. Conan Doyle described Dupin as the best detective in fiction, some Holmes fans might have argued with him on that one.

Anyway I enjoyed these short stories although I have to admit that it’s really 1930s crime fiction which is my favourite, for me that was really the golden age of crime fiction. Given that this is part of the history of the whole crime genre I’m really glad that I read them and I now know what people are talking about when they mention The Murders in the Rue Morgue. I think it must have been quite shocking when it was first published as it’s really quite gory and violent.

I’m sure I read somewher that Edgar Allan Poe was of Scottish descent but according to Wiki it was just his foster father who was Scottish. Poe did go to school in Irvine, in the west of Scotland, at one point before moving to England and then back to America. He also married his 13 year old cousin, so I’m not at all sure that we would want to claim him as a Scot!

Is there anything which you feel you should have read or experienced years ago and for some reason haven’t, resulting in those tumbleweed moments?