Tuesday, January 09, 2024

The Man Who Didn't Fly, by Margot Bennett

This is a beguiling mystery by Margot Bennett, first published in 1955 and recently republished in a nice new edition by the British Library, along with several other examples of Bennett's crime fiction. I listened to the audio version read by Seán Barrett and think it might have helped to have had the paperback to hand so I could flip easily back to clues and insight. I think I followed it to the end - but can see why other online reviewers found it a bit perplexing.

Several commentators fix on what they see as a fundamental weakness but which I rather enjoyed - this isn't set up as a murder mystery. Instead, it begins with the loss at sea of a charter plane on its way to Ireland. Records show that a pilot and three passengers were aboard, but four men are known to have tickets. So who exactly is the man who didn't fly and why has he also disappeared?

That wheeze puts this novel in the same bracket as other mystery stories I've loved, such as The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey (1948), or quite a few adventures of Sherlock Holmes, in not being a murder mystery. I can understand why some readers might find it a bit lightweight, insignificant. It's less Cluedo as Guess Who?

The police ask questions of people who encountered these various men in the days leading up to the fateful flight. That then leads to the bulk of the novel: an extended flashback over several days, all set in a wealthy family home. Two of the men seem romantically entangled with daughters of the house. At least one of the men is embroiled in something dodgy involved investments. None of it really seems to help us as readers play along in solving the puzzle.

But I found a lot of this stuff quite fun. It has the feel of a stage play, characters coming and going in the same drawing room, with conflicts and revelations coming thick and fast. Then two outsiders enter proceedings - a young burglar and an older man from Australia with a grudge. It began to look as if the three passengers on the plane might be drawn from a larger pool than the original four suspects.

(I also began to wonder if the continued reference to "the man" who didn't fly was setting up a twist where the missing person would turn out to be a woman who has switched places with one of the four.)

At last we return to the present to sift through everything we've had presented. The police methodically, logically, work through the evidence and - taking everything they've been told at face value - establish the identify of the fourth man. Then comes the brilliant twist that this does involve a murder mystery, the killing one aspect of wider criminal activity that there have been clues to all along.

But it's odd that this whole thing hinges on tragic chance - the plane crash being a random accident is another thing some readers criticise. The mild-mannered inquiry into who was involved has less dramatic urgency than a regular murder mystery. I liked it because it was something a bit different from the norm but can see why it would disappoint if you have a firmer sense of what mystery novels should be.

I've some more work by Bennett to get through, engaged in my own mild-mannered inquiry into what exactly she might have pitched in 1964 to Doctor Who. Martin Edwards' introduction to this novel has been helpful there - and his mention of Margot Bennett in Life of Crime sparked this thought in the first place. I've the first inklings of an idea about what she and story editor David Whitaker might have discussed but, like the dour police inspector in this novel, will hold off until I've gathered all the evidence.

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