by Margot Bennett
Publication Date: January 1, 1955
Project: golden age mystery
Four men had arranged to fly to Dublin. When their aeroplane descended as a fireball into the Irish Sea, only three of them were on board. With the identities of the passengers lost beneath the waves, a tense and perplexing investigation begins to determine the living from the dead, with scarce evidence to follow beyond a few snippets of overheard conversation and one family’s patchy account of the three days prior to the flight.
Who was the man who didn’t fly? What did he have to gain? And would he commit such an explosive murder to get it? First published in 1955, Bennett’s ingenious mystery remains an innovative and thoroughly entertaining inversion of the classic whodunit.
This was a strange little mystery from the British Library Crime Classics series. We start with an intriguing premise – an airplane goes down over the ocean on the way to Ireland. Four men are scheduled to fly: Harry Walters, Joseph Ferguson, Morgan Price and Maurice Reid. Only 3 of the men make it onto the plane the morning of the flight. Who is the fourth man, the titular “man who didn’t fly,” and if he didn’t die in a plane crash, where is he?
The mystery is told through interviews with characters who interacted with the four men, particularly Joe Ferguson’s wife, Moira, and the Wade family, Charles, Hester and Prudence. Charles Wade is one of those vague and beleaguered English gentlemen who has lost the family money from stock market reversals and death duties, but who is incapable of changing his lifestyle to suit his circumstances. Hester, the elder daughter, is a medical student, and Prudence, the younger daughter, is on break from school. Hester, in particular, is convinced that Maurice is a swindler and is trying to prevent Charles from handing over ten thousand pounds, all that is left of the family fortune apart from a small income, to Maurice to “invest.”
Most of the book didn’t feel at all like a mystery. The two police officers who are assigned to investigate spend a lot of time digging into the dynamics of the relationships between the men who have disappeared and the Wade family. There are also some interviews with men who were at the pub at the same time as the three men who made it onto the plane, and the last section of the book, the reveal, is really a logic puzzle where the inspectors figure out who was missing by the conversation that was reported by pub witnesses. This was all very important to the reveal, but was also the least *believable* part of the book to me – I’ve read a lot of witness statements throughout my career and witnesses do not remember conversations that they were not a part of at all like the witnesses in this book. The statements were important to figuring out who wasn’t there, but the entire logic puzzle, while moderately fun, relied on statements that were of dubious reliability.
What I did like about the book were the pages that were devoted to detailing the two days before the flight, and the dynamics between all of the different characters. Weirdly, that felt to me more like a Stella Gibbons novel, or another mid-century English woman writer. It was particularly focused on the relationship between Harry, the poet, and Hester.
The other thing that completely threw me for a loop was a very short story that was appended to the book. I initially took it for an epilogue, and could not figure out how it tied into the book. Once I figured out that it was just a completely separate story, thrown in for fun, I was much less confused. I assumed I had missed some essential plot line involving the Browns and the Smiths and I was baffled.
This was a library borrow – I’m going to be tracking the amount of money that I save using my public library this year. This is the second read of the year from my public library, so I’ve saved $18.00 so far