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Authors: Christopher St. John Sprigg

Death of an Airman

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Death of an Airman

Christopher St. John Sprigg

With an Introduction
by Martin Edwards

Poisoned Pen Press


Copyright © 1934, 2015
Introduction copyright © 2015 Martin Edwards

Published by Poisoned Pen Press in association with the British Library

First E-book Edition 2015

ISBN: 9781464204838 ebook

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

The historical characters and events portrayed in this book are inventions of the author or used fictitiously.

Poisoned Pen Press
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Death of an Airman
, by Christopher St. John Sprigg, is an enjoyable and unorthodox whodunit from a writer whose short life was as remarkable as that of any of his fictional creations. On first publication in 1935, the novel was greeted rapturously by no less an authority than Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of Lord Peter Wimsey and then the crime fiction reviewer for the
Sunday Times
. The story, she said, ‘bubbles over with zest and vitality in describing the exceedingly odd goings-on at a rather oddly managed Aero Club.' Sayers had previously enthused over Sprigg's
The Perfect Alibi,
prompting him to write her a letter of appreciation. It must have seemed that a distinguished career beckoned for him in the field of crime fiction.

Fate intervened, however, and Sprigg's detective novels have languished in obscurity for almost eight decades. Their extreme scarcity has made the prices of first editions in well-kept dust wrappers rise faster than any of the airships in which Sprigg took a special interest. In years of searching, I could not find a copy of this book for sale anywhere; finally, I managed to read it, thanks to the generous loan of a copy from one of England's leading collectors. I was as impressed as Sayers, and happily the British Library has stepped in to make
Death of an Airman
available to present-day readers, most of whom are unlikely to be familiar with Sprigg's work.

When an aeroplane crashes, and its pilot is killed, Edwin Marriott, the Bishop of Cootamundra in Australia, is on hand. In England on leave, the Bishop has decided to learn how to fly, but he is not convinced that the pilot's death was accidental. In due course, naturally, he is proved right. The Bishop and Inspector Bray of Scotland Yard make an appealing pair of detectives, and ultimately a cunning criminal scheme is uncovered. To say too much about the story would risk spoiling some of the surprises, but many readers will agree with Sayers' verdict that Sprigg offers ‘a most ingenious and exciting plot, full of good puzzles and discoveries and worked out among a varied cast of entertaining characters.'

Christopher St. John Sprigg is a name that sounds like a pseudonym, but it was real enough. He was born in Putney in 1907, but left school at 15 after his father lost his job as literary editor of the
Daily Express
. The Spriggs moved to Yorkshire, and Christopher started working for a local newspaper. Interested in aviation and writing, he catered for both passions by becoming involved with an aeronautics publishing business, and in 1930 he published
The Airship: its Design, History, Operation and Future
. This was followed two years later by a book titled
Fly with Me: an elementary textbook on the art of piloting
, and later by
Let's Learn to Fly
. No wonder the background of
Death of an Airman
impresses as authentic. His debut crime novel,
Crime in Kensington
Pass the Body
for U.S. publication) appeared in 1933, and introduced Charles Venables, an amateur detective. Like Bray, Venables is a character whom Sprigg employed more than once.

Sprigg's youth and dynamism were typical of many detective novelists of his era. He wrote six more whodunits, as well as editing a book of classic ‘uncanny stories' by the likes of Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R. James. For good measure, he tried his hand at short stories, experimenting with science fiction, and with a female sleuth faintly reminiscent of Miss Marple.

Writing fact and fiction was not enough for Sprigg. He adopted the pen-name Christopher Caudwell for much of his serious literary work, quickly establishing a separate reputation as a poet. He also became a passionate convert to Marxism, offering a Marxist critique of poetry in
Illusion and Reality
Studies in a Dying Culture
, published posthumously, included an introduction by John Strachey, a fellow Marxist who later became a minister in Clement Attlee's post-war government. Strachey shared Sprigg's interest in mysteries, and is credited with coining the phrase ‘the Golden Age of detective fiction.' Sebastian Faulks has pointed out that Sprigg's enthusiasm for flying was not diminished by his shift to a hard-line political stance and membership of the Communist Party: ‘Flying was seen as a feasible form of heroism and individual self-assertion that survived the degradation of the infantry slaughters on the Western Front.' Unfortunately, slaughter in wartime had not come to an end. In late 1936, Sprigg joined the International Brigade and travelled to Spain. He trained as a machine gunner, but was killed in action on 12 February 1937. He was not quite thirty years old.

At about the same time that Sprigg became a Communist, so did a fellow poet who dabbled in detective fiction. Cecil Day-Lewis, however, decided not to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and he survived until the 1970s, long enough to form a rather different view of politics. He became Poet Laureate, married a beautiful actress, and had a son who became an Oscar-winning actor. Sometimes there is only a hair's breadth of difference between longevity and oblivion. Sprigg does not, however, deserve to be forgotten, and although he fell out of love with detective fiction in the last months of his life, he was young enough to have seen the error of his ways, had he lived. He was a talented writer, of whodunits and much else besides, and this reissue of
Death of an Airman
provides a welcome reminder of a worthy life, cut short as cruelly and prematurely as those of his fictional victims.

Martin Edwards

Chapter I

Arrival of a Bishop

A young woman with a reddish face and horn-rimmed glasses appeared suddenly out of a door marked “Manager, Baston Aero Club.”

“Well, young man, what do you want?” she asked sharply.

The middle-aged man in grey flannels who was standing in the club hall looked round to see who was being spoken to, and then perceptibly started when he realized that it was he who was being addressed.

“Are you the manager of the Baston Aero Club?” he asked.

“Manager and secretary. In fact, I run the place,” she answered.

“I see.” The speaker, though obviously not shy, had not quite recovered from the surprise of being addressed as “young man” by a woman some years his junior.

“The fact is, I want to learn to fly. That is,” he added diffidently, “if I am not too old for that sort of thing.” His diffidence contrasted with a certain deep richness of voice—the kind of voice which inevitably suggests public speaking.

The young woman beamed. “Don't you worry! We'll teach you if it kills us—or you.” She rummaged over a table in the hall which was littered with papers and picked out a form.

“We'd better make you a member before you lose your nerve. Are you a British subject? We're not particular, but if you aren't British we don't get a subsidy for teaching you, so we charge you more.”

“I am an Australian.”

The red-faced young woman peered at him anxiously from behind her glasses. “I hope you don't get fighting drunk? Our last Australian smashed every glass in the place the day he went solo.”

The stranger cleared his throat deprecatingly. “I think it unlikely that I should do the same. I am the Bishop of Cootamundra.”

For the first time the girl looked a little disconcerted. “Well, I'm…I mean how odd!” She looked at him critically. “You have got a
air now one looks for it, and that sort of creamy clerical voice. But why haven't you a doodah round your neck and the obbly-gobblies on the legs?”

“You refer, I fancy, to the Roman collar and episcopal gaiters.” The Bishop's stiff manner was contradicted by a twinkle in his clear blue eyes. “I am at the moment on leave. In any case we are less rigid about these formalities in the Commonwealth. The spirit quickeneth, you know.”

“Talking about spirits,” said the young woman vaguely, “I must close the bar. It's gone three. Those damned soaks will lose me my licence if they can. Excuse my language, by the way. We haven't many bishops here.”

“Don't let me detain you.”

“That's all right,” the girl answered with quiet determination. “I'm going to get your signature on the dotted line before I leave you!”

While she spoke, the manager was rapidly filling up the form, and now she handed it to him. He signed it and took out his cheque-book. “I see the entrance fee is two guineas and the subscription another two guineas; that is four in all. To whom shall I make out the cheque?”

“My dear old soul, nobody takes any notice of the entrance fee—only the disgustingly rich ones. Make it out for two guineas to the ‘Baston Aero Proprietary, Ltd.' ”

“Oh, thank you.” The Bishop completed and signed the cheque.

The manager glanced at the firm clear signature.

“Edwin Marriott,” she read. “I thought you signed yourself ‘George Canterbury,' ‘Arthur Swansea,' and so forth.”

The Bishop smiled. “I'm afraid not. Edwin Cootamundriensis sounds a trifle unconvincing, don't you think?”

She folded the Bishop's cheque with a caressing gesture. “This ought to be a good cheque—for a change,” she said with an air of relief. “We should christen it with a quick drink really, shouldn't we? Oh, of course, I was forgetting. You probably don't drink. You know it will take a bit of getting used to, your Bishop line,” she went on confidentially, “but it will be first-rate publicity when you take your ‘ticket'.
Exchanges mitre for flying helmet
, you know.”

The Bishop shuddered perceptibly at this remark.

The girl handed him a booklet and some leaflets and made a shooing gesture. “Pop out on the tarmac, there's a dear, and have a squint at the flying. I'll join you in a jiffy, and introduce you to your instructor and so forth.”

The Bishop, hazy as to what the “tarmac” might be, walked out through the door in front of him and came out on to a concrete expanse. Chairs and tables were scattered
al fresco
, and to the right of the wooden club-house from which he had emerged was a gaunt shed which he supposed housed the club's aeroplanes. Before him, obviously, was the aerodrome, for even as he watched an aeroplane was running rapidly across it.

“Taking-off,” he murmured with satisfaction.

The manager joined him later, looking still more reddish and dishevelled. Evidently this was the effect of attempting to close the bar.

“I'd better introduce myself first,” she remarked briskly. “Sarah Sackbut, but everyone calls me Sally—or worse.”

“How do you do?” said the Bishop politely.

“I suppose you're a lordship?” she went on. “I'm a little vague about the Australian Church?”

“I'd rather not. Few of my flock in Australia do so, and when I hear it over here it always makes me feel not quite real. I prefer Doctor Marriott. Or, as a fellow club member, call me Bishop—American, perhaps, but more familiar to me.”

The Bishop's gaze wandered to a slim figure in white overalls and flying helmet which was standing near them. The portion of face which the Bishop could see was very attractive, and it was also faintly familiar, but he could not see enough to put a name to it.

A word from Sally made the girl turn. “This,” Sally told her, “is our new member—the Bishop of Cootamundra. No nonsense about him—hail-fellow-well-met—the world's Bishop.” Sally smiled at Dr. Marriott. “I suppose you recognize
? Face creams, you know. ‘
Lady Laura Vanguard, Society's leading beauty, uses Blank's Skinfude exclusively
,' and so forth. She's worth pounds to us in publicity, aren't you, Laura?”

“Well, why are you always worrying about my silly account?” asked Lady Laura plaintively.

“Hard cash is more than coronets,” answered Miss Sackbut grimly.

“How too right!” Lady Laura flashed a smile at the Bishop. “Appallingly pleased to meet you. Is it one of Sally's silly jokes or are you really the Bishop-thing?”

“I really am,” admitted the Bishop, feeling more unreal than before.

“What do you want to learn to fly for? Nearer my God to Thee sort of thing?”

“Don't be blasphemous, dear,” said Sally.

“Better than being profane,” replied Lady Laura. “I am sure you've terrified the Bishop with your language already.”

“My ambition is quite earthly,” interrupted the Bishop hastily. “It takes several weeks to travel from one end of my diocese to the other by the present primitive means of transport. The diocese has offered to buy me an aeroplane, but funds do not permit me to employ a pilot. I propose, therefore, to pilot myself.”

Lady Laura murmured something, but her attention was on the aeroplane now climbing steadily into the blue afternoon sky.

Miss Sackbut strolled forward and the Bishop followed her. His attention was attracted by a woman in a black leather flying-suit who was standing in the attitude of determined isolation adopted by well-known persons in public places.

The features, pretty at a distance but on closer inspection somewhat aged and battered, were still more familiar to the Bishop than Lady Laura's classic profile.

“Bless my soul!” he exclaimed. “Isn't that—yes, surely it's Mrs. Angevin, the transatlantic flyer! Dear me, quite an honour for the club!”

Miss Sackbut laughed sardonically, and the Bishop wondered whether his remark was inappropriate.

“Transatlantic flyers!” The girl snorted contemptuously. “The place is lousy with them! That tall fellow over there talking to our ground engineer is Captain Randall. He's flown both Atlantics both ways now. Having a crack at the Pacific this year. He's giving Dolly Angevin a bit of a dirty look, isn't he? They're as jealous as chorus girls, half these famous pilots. Still, he's a pilot and she isn't.”

“I don't understand?” ventured Dr. Marriott. “Surely she flew the machine to New York? Wasn't she alone?”

“Oh, she can fly from A to B all right,” admitted Miss Sackbut unenthusiastically, revealing the depths of disdain of the flying world for its public heroes, “as long as her engine turns round, but she's hamhanded.”

“Poor girl! What a deformity!”

“Good lord! I only mean it figuratively,” exclaimed Sally. “It means she's clumsy, if you follow me. And then didn't you see her
into the aerodrome just now? She always does.”

“Really? I must say I heard no noise,” answered the Bishop in surprise.

Miss Sackbut laughed. “Surely you understand English, Doctor Marriott? To ‘rumble' is to sneak in near the ground with bursts of engine until you reach the aerodrome. Then you flop in. What you should do, of course,” she added in lofty explanation, “is glide in from a height without using your engine. Rumbling is fine until the engine refuses to play. Then you drop into the street and they scrape you up.”

The Bishop was a little staggered at this explanation, which made matters considerably more obscure.

“Dear me, how unpleasant! I must remember to avoid
at all costs when I come to fly.” The Bishop laughed. “Really, the word is quite apposite when one comes to think of it. What a lot I have to learn! You seem almost to speak a different language.”

“Talking of language,” said his informant, “what in hell's name is Furnace doing with that babe Vane?”

Miss Sackbut was staring at the aeroplane which the Bishop had seen take off a little earlier. He followed her gaze.

The gay red-and-silver aeroplane looked quite steady to the Bishop. It seemed to be climbing steeply and effortlessly, with the tail low down. But as he watched it, something terrible happened. It was all so quick that the Bishop found difficulty in grasping what really occurred. The aeroplane tilted sideways with a flick, the front dropped, and the contraption was whirling like a devilish top earthward, while the tail beat the air violently in a giddy spiral.

Miss Sackbut's voice rose in irritation. “Furnace is spinning. He oughtn't to do that on the kid's fourth lesson. Particularly with Vane, who's qualifying as our worst pupil. It'll scare the life out of him.”

It was only now that the Bishop understood that this alarming manoeuvre was intentional. Rotating with the attractive precision of a top, the aeroplane still fell. Its wings flashed alternately silver and red as now the under and now the upper surface caught the sunlight. The Bishop could see in the cockpits two black heads, absurdly small, which appeared and disappeared as the aeroplane revolved.

The spin ceased abruptly; the tail seemed to drop, and there was the machine flying again as before. He heard a rising drone, and the aeroplane climbed. Then the drone died down again, and the aircraft glided over the hangars, landing in front of them with a swinging swish of the tail.

It stopped, turned rockingly and lolloped over the aerodrome back to the hangar. Sally walked up to it when it arrived and the Bishop followed her.

Furnace jumped out of the front cockpit. He was flying without goggles or helmet, with a pair of ear-phones and speaking-tube mounted on a headpiece. The Bishop looked at the instructor with curiosity.

Furnace seemed to be near the forties and might have been a handsome man had not a scar run diagonally across his face from one temple to the opposite jowl. Each feature was distorted where the scar traversed it and his mouth was twisted in a perpetual lop-sided grin, which made his real expression enigmatic.

“An aeroplane fire. He got chucked against a red-hot wire,” whispered Miss Sackbut, as she saw the Bishop's eyes rest on the scar.

The propeller stopped suddenly and a muffled object crawled clumsily out of the rear cockpit. This, the Bishop gathered, was the pupil. He was dressed in a bulky leather coat, enormous scarf, and large woolly gloves. He wore a flying mask, usually only adopted for high altitude or winter flying, which gave him a sinister appearance. The man looked portly, but when the coverings were peeled off he revealed himself as one of those lanky jockey-like youngsters, who might be any age between thirteen and thirty-five. At the moment there was rather a depressed expression on his peaky white face.

“All right, George,” said Miss Sackbut to Furnace, “XT can be put away. There's no more instruction to-day.”

“A good job too,” answered Furnace irritably. “In my young days we used to go solo in two hours. Now everyone seems to want about twelve hours. In another ten years they'll take a fortnight. By that time I'll be in a lunatic asylum.”

He shouted to a thin red-headed man in dirty and tattered overalls: “Here, Andy, put XT away.” He muttered something to Miss Sackbut that the Bishop could not catch.

“I want you to meet a new pupil,” said Miss Sackbut, introducing him to the Bishop.

“I am afraid I shall fulfil your worst fears,” remarked the Bishop diffidently. “I know in advance I shall be a bad pupil.”

The malicious grin widened. The Bishop gathered that this time Furnace was really smiling. “Oh, don't be frightened by my remark,” the pilot said more graciously. “Some of my best pupils are your age. You won't learn quite so quickly as a youngster, but you'll be all the sounder as a pilot. I don't mind slowness in learning; but I've come to the conclusion, Sally, that Tommy knows what he ought to do and is just too lazy to do it.”

The Bishop supposed that the muffled figure was Tommy.

BOOK: Death of an Airman
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