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Criminally good writing

Jeremy Black reviews The Man Who Didn’t Fly, by Margot Bennett

From the point of murder, the last few days have not been marvellous. Possibly summer humidity has left me jaded, or writing a history of logistics simply very tired, but I have found it difficult to engage. And yet such varied prospects were on offer in terms of targets, means and accomplices; and most of the time in a fug of decent alcohol and many smokes. Two attempts I abandoned: ennui or the small print of modern life? One other, with guilt apparent at the outset, left no space for the puzzles of more than sequential muddle. So, let us first clear away what did not work for me. Why, incidentally, someone does not just trip up the intended at the pavement edge of a bus lane (or on the South-West Coastal footpath) and finish the plummet pretending to save them, thus explaining both presence and apparent struggle, but why give away two of my successes?

So, Elizabeth Daly, Evidence of Things Seen (1946), and Ellery Queen’s Book of Mystery Stories. Stories by World-famous authors (1952), are both out: the first too boring to survive, the second a collection of interesting tales, but also a guide to how literary fame passes. I gave up after Hemingway’s ‘The Killers’ which was satisfying in its sparseness, unlike Pearl Buck’s dreary ‘Ransom.’ Timothy Fuller’s Reunion with Murder (1947), the murder of Sherman North at the Syonsett Golf Course during a Harvard reunion, was alright, but also mannered. The relationship between Jupiter Jones, the academic tec, and fiancée Betty had content and dialogue like some Hollywood films of the period. The Angel of Terror (1922) was typical Edgar Wallace, but the sexual frisson between hero and villainess was handled well, as was the interplay between the latter and the dull heroine. The deux ex machina was implausible, but then … Edgar Wallace.

Of the recent short stories, an Edmund Crispin selection, Fen Country (1979), has been excellent, with the stories successfully brief. John Dickson Carr’s The Men Who Explained Miracles (1963) was less trying than the two uncharacteristically unsuccessful novels of his I read lately. Peter Haining’s well-selected collection Murder by the Glass (1994) includes John Jakes’ haunting ‘The Opening of the Crypt,’ a successful sequel to Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ as well as ‘Raffles and Operation Champagne,’ a Raffles revival by Barry Perowne set in World War One, and a host of successful stories that are best not read together, so as both to defer the pleasure and avoid occasional repetition.

The Man Who Didn’t Fly (British Library Crime Classics Book 81) By Margot Bennett

Somewhat fed up, I turned to Margot Bennett’s The Man Who Didn’t Fly (1955), the latest in the British Library Crime Classics, and found it so engrossing I rushed through. There are the standards of the series – an attractive cover, a good price (£8.99), a pertinent introduction by the perceptive and industrious Martin Edwards, and a very readable typeface. Bennett (1912-80) was new to me. A successful thriller writer, she turned to television scriptwriting and to science fiction. Didn’t Fly is based on an interesting idea: a light aircraft en route to Dublin catches fire and crashes into the Irish Sea. The lost wreckage includes the pilot and three men who boarded the aircraft, but four passengers were due to be on the flight, and none can be found. The identity of the last and the reason for his disappearance is the basis for this plot which is introduced rapidly, written with style, many a telling phrase, and effective characterisation: 

‘He sat on a low stool, his great, yellow, rectangular face hanging over the bar like a disfigured moon.’…

‘… I wanted to be an old-fashioned remittance man, but she wouldn’t send me the remittance.’

‘… I like cigarette cases and watches – they give a man something to pawn in time of need.’

‘She saw herself less brutally than the observer, not for a moment imagining that the pool was already drying up and that the thirsty traveller would pass it without a glance. She knew that soon she might have to rise from the pool and clutch the traveller and hold him while his eyes turned away.’

The action is largely set in an impoverished, downwardly mobile, middle-class household, and the characters are prey to delusions, illusions, and schemings for a fast buck. That made me wonder about Britain now and in the future. Bennett, a left-winger who had been injured while a nurse on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, is a world away from the identity politics of the modern New Left. Her people are unsure about the source of their meals and clothes, and their finances a matter of shifts and expedients. The plot-devices are excellent, and the book a good read. This great series continues to deliver. Long may it thrive.

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