Dr Edwin Marriott, Bishop of Cootamundra

(creator: Christopher St John Sprigg)

Christopher St John Sprigg
Death of an Airman cover Dr Edwin Marriott was a very active and practically minded middle-aged Bishop of Cootamundra in Australia, currently on leave in England, but, "because of the variety of duties that had fallen to his lot as a clergyman in lonely parishes in Australia, he was by way of being also a physician." He was very observant and had "a remarkable brain" but his "stiff manner was contradicted by a twinkle in his clear blue eyes."

Christopher St John Sprigg (1907-1937) also wrote under the name of Christopher Caudwell. He had left the Benedictine Ealing Priory School at the age of 15 and become a journalist who went on to run an aeronautics publishing company. He wrote poetry, plays, short stories, and other works including seven detective novels, of which Death of an Airman (see below) was one. He later described these detective novels as "trash". By then he had become a dedicated communist. He joined the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. He was killed on his first day in battle, aged 29. He is best remembered now for his posthumously published Marxist works, written under the name of Christopher Caudwell (Caudwell had been his mother's name). His sister was a nun.

Death of an Airman (1934)
Death of an Airman tells how Dr Edwin Marriott, Bishop of Cootamundra in Australia, is in England on leave and wants to learn how to fly, as his diocese has given him a plane, but not a pilot, to help him in his work. But when the flight school's principal instructor dies after his plane crashes, it is the bishop who notices that rigor mortis does not set in. And this is only one of the "fishy things" that he spots. When a bullet wound is discovered in the dead man's head, it seems an impossible crime, but Scotland Yard Inspector Bernard Bray, with a little help from the bishop, gets on the trail and discovers that drug smugglers may be involved. It would have been more interesting if the bishop himself had been more closely involved in the hunt.

It's not a story that need not be taken too seriously (when one of the villains confesses all, he refuses to identify the mastermind, telling the poiceman, "My dear fellow, that is one of the things that are definitely not done by the pukka criminal. I am sorry, but we cads have our code"). So just sit back and enjoy the bizarre characters at the eccentric little flying club, including the young woman who is "manager and secretary. In fact I run the place." It is she who asks the bishop, "Why haven't you a doodah round your neck and the obbly-gobblies on the legs?"

Other fun characters include the redoubtable Lady Crumbles who "lived in a passionate whirl of organisation .... People instinctively (but vainly) put protecting hands over their cheque-books when she approached. Vainly, because Lady Crumble's masterful and obtuse personality had the effect of a tank, and to be perfectly candid, her figure was planned on similar lines, which made the joint effect the more overpowering." It is she who not only descides that the Baston Aero Club (of which she is not even a member) must put on a money-raising display with half of the proceeds going to "my Air Fairies".
"Your what?" asked her brother Lord Gunnage incredulously.
"My Air Fairies.You've heard of Brownies, I suppose?"
"A particularly repellent breed of Girl Guide, aren't they?"
Lady Crumbles explains that her Air Fairies will be "the aerial equivalent of the Brownies. In time of war they will do their duty for King and Country by assisting our gallant airmen."
"I don't think the name is very happy."
"And pray why not?"
Lord Gunnage coughed. ""It might give rise to misconceptions."
"I don't follow you," said Lady Crumbles brusquely." However, as you have taken some absurd prejudice against the name - what about the Airies?"
And Airies it was.

The author describes the process of flying in the 1930s in really convincing detail (he also wrote the books Fly with Me and Let's Learn to Fly) and, like the bishop, was obviously "infected with the insidous disease of flight". Even so, confronted with the problems of navigation, the bishop comments, "How much more reasonable theology is! It sounds absurdly complicated."

There's a welcome brightness of invention about some of the characters although the basic plot, with its unlikely drug smuggling gets a bit tedious, and the final revelation of "the chief" behind the murder(s), and the characterisation of the police, lack any credibility. As does the sudden marriage of the bishop. All of this, as the author points out right at the end, "explains why the Flying Bishop of Cootamundra (as he is known), and his wife, have a horror of detective novels. 'It reads all right in a book,' the Bishop will explain, 'but it's dreadful if you encounter it in real life.' " However, it all makes quite entertaining, if dated, reading and it is good to see it republished.

The most informative articles about the author are on The Passing Tramp blog and the Gadection site. There is a review of Death of an Airman on the mystery.file site.

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The original cover looks a bit dated now, but, after being out of print for many years, the book was republished by the British Library in 2015 with the new cover shown below.
Death of an Airman cover
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