Death of an Airman, which dates from 1935, is today's Forgotten Book,but the fact that it counts as forgotten has nothing to do with its quality - which is high - but everything to do with its scarcity. Most of the seven detective novels written by the author, Christopher St. John Sprigg, have been hard to find for more than half a century, though the publishing revolution may change things soon. My copy of this book was loaned by a kind friend. He has a wonderful Golden Age collection, but even his copy of this one is an American reprint rather than the UK first edition.
Sprigg knew a good deal about the world of aeroplanes, and this makes the background - a small, fictitious aerodrome in the south of England - both credible and fascinating. His story involves an apparently impossible crime, and here again his inside knowledge contributed to the plot. But there is more to this story than technical detail - the suspects are not drawn in great depth, but they are at least entertainingly characterised.
One of the main viewpoint characters is an Australian bishop, and he is pleasingly portrayed as a decent man whose presence at the scene of a plane crash, in which a pilot's corpse is discovered, proves the catalyst for a discursive investigation which takes in an elaborate international cocaine smuggling operation. Books - especially perhaps those from the Golden Age - in which cocaine smuggling plays a part tend to have to do a lot to convince me of their merit, but Sprigg does a surprisingly good job of weaving the scam in with a clever whodunit plot.
Overall, there is a great deal to like about this book, and it's the best Sprigg I've read to date. In fact, I enjoyed reading it much more than I expected, partly because of the period detail, but also because Sprigg writes with a light and deft touch. What a tragedy and a waste that this gifted man died before he was 30, fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He really could write well..