A splendid, if rather unconventionally structured, mystery where the problem is identifying the victims.
Originally published in 1955
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.
The premise of the story is a rather unusual one, though still firmly within traditional puzzle mystery territory. An aeroplane flying to Ireland is destroyed and the wreckage cannot be found. The authorities know the identities of the four men who were to be on that flight but the evidence shows that only three actually boarded that flight. With no bodies to identify, the authorities conduct an investigation to try to work out who the three men were who died on board that flight by speaking with the men’s friends and family.
Perhaps the most unusual feature of the book is that the investigation is not into anything we might consider a crime. There is no suggestion that the aeroplane met its fate deliberately. Yet in spite of that, it is clear that there is something distinctly odd going on within that group of four acquaintances both in terms of their strained interpersonal relationships and also in the secrets some were clearly harboring. By the end of the novel we will have a clear understanding of how they relate to one another as well as some more traditional crime elements to consider.
The characters are boldly drawn and, I felt, very well observed though some may struggle to find someone they like and are rooting for. One of my favorites was Harry, the charming young poet who is reckless with money and seems to rub everyone up the wrong way leading almost all his acquaintances to try to warn his girlfriend, Hester, that she ought to stay clear of him. Advice that only seems to make her dig in. I enjoyed his flippancy and felt that Bennett did a good job of walking the line between roguishness and villainy. I suspect most readers will feel Harry is not a good man and yet there is something inherently entertaining in seeing him work little cons to avail himself of a cigarette or extra round of drinks at someone else’s expense.
Perhaps my favorite of the characters was Hester’s father, Mr. Wade, who reminded me a little of some of Austen’s eccentric fathers (I thought of Mr. Wodehouse – though Wade’s malady is pecuniary rather than health, Kate from CrossExaminingCrime thought Sir Walter from Persuasion). I felt that Bennett managed to make him comic without being too ridiculous which is often a difficult line to walk and while the treatment is often designed to be humorous, his befuddlement does play an important part in the overall development of the plot.
The only bland characters in the book are the policemen who seem competent but largely anonymous. This reflects that though they play an important part in piecing together what had happened, much of the events of the novel are recounted to them, leaving them little opportunity for interaction or to steer what was happening.
While other elements, including some more overtly criminous ones, are introduced later in the novel, our focus remains almost entirely on the question of who was on board that flight. While that may seem like a somewhat suspect premise for a mystery, I found it provided a surprising amount for the reader to consider. Perhaps the most striking of these is the matter, not of who was on board, but where the person who missed the flight vanished to and why.
I was quite delighted when I recognized toward the end of the novel that Bennett had constructed several logic puzzles for the reader to solve that will identify them. A character suggests at one point that they think they could have worked out the solution if only they had a pencil and paper and they’re right – the puzzles are clear and the logic is simple. The challenge lies in recognizing the information you need to work with in the first place.
The explanation for what happened is delivered to the reader in stages, each new reveal painting a more detailed picture. Most of those reveals feel worthwhile and there were a few early surprises to enjoy. One final revelation, concerning what happened to the fourth passenger, struck me as pretty effective, even if it only confirmed something I had suspected from very early in the novel.
It makes for a great read, rich in its characters and boasting a rather unusual premise. I found the novel enormously enjoyable and was surprised at just how often I was chuckling over some remark or situation the author concocted. The effective marriage of moments of humor with the mystery elements work very well and I felt the final resolution was largely satisfying – aside from a rather unconvincing romantic beat. I was very impressed and hope to read more from this author in the future.