The Man Who Didn’t Fly by Margot Bennett

A puzzling mystery…

😀 😀 😀 😀

A plane crashes en route to Dublin. Four men were supposed to have been going on the trip, but only three boarded the plane. There were no survivors and no bodies have been found. The first problem is that no one knows which of the four men is the one who is, presumably, still alive. The second problem is that he hasn’t turned up, explaining why he missed the flight. Inspector Lewis and his assistant, Sergeant Young, have to backtrack through the last day or two to see if they can identify the man who didn’t fly, and find out why he has disappeared…

This is a very odd crime novel. I assumed the crime would be that the plane had been deliberately destroyed, meaning that the pilot and passengers had been murdered. But this idea never seems to feature much. Maybe back in the 1950s, planes were always falling out of the sky en route to Dublin so it didn’t seem so suspicious? Instead, Lewis and Young seem to be merely trying to identify the dead and the living, for the sake of the inquests. And yet I couldn’t quite swallow the idea that two relatively high-level officers would be assigned to such a task. Fortunately, however, it soon transpires that all four of the men had secrets, so the lack of an obvious crime soon fades into the background as the investigation begins to centre on what they’d all been up to in the days before the flight.

Some of the early part follows the usual detective story format of Lewis questioning locals, but soon he hones in on the Wade family, who seem to have had connections with all four of the men. From then on it’s told partly through members of the family giving their recollections, mixed with a straight third-person narrative of what they’re telling. Again odd, but it does work eventually, after a rather slow and confusing start. Mostly we see the action from the perspective of Hester, the older of Mr Wade’s two daughters. She’s a sensible young woman, who is worried that her father seems bent on speculating his small remaining fortune on the advice of one of the plane’s passengers. Another is the Wade’s lodger, a strange, nervous man who seems almost paranoid at times. A third man is a neighbour and long-time friend of the family. And the fourth is Harry, a ne’er-do-well with poetical aspirations, with whom young Hester is beginning to fancy herself in love. So the family is as keen to know who has survived as the police are, and readily co-operate in telling all they know of the days leading up to the crash.

Margot Bennett

The basis for the plot is all a bit silly really, and not terribly credible. But the actual plotting of the mystery element is excellent – it’s a real puzzle, based on clues and logic and elimination. The reader has as much chance as the police to work out the identities of the men on the basis of the clues given. Needless to say, I didn’t, although some parts of the story were easier to guess at than others. The characterisation is a bit contrived to serve the plot, and I must admit it took me ages before I could tell most of the missing men apart without checking back each time to remind myself which was which. Harry the poet and the Wade family members are much better drawn, especially Hester, who provides a rare character to care about amidst the many unlikeable and unscrupulous people in the cast.

Overall, I have rather mixed feelings about it. I enjoyed the second half much more than the first, and suspect it would greatly appeal to people who enjoy the challenge of a clue-based logic puzzle. It’s not quite as successful in terms of character and motive, but these aspects are still strong enough to give an enjoyable background for the puzzle elements. One for the mind rather than the emotions, I think.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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32 thoughts on “The Man Who Didn’t Fly by Margot Bennett

  1. Hmmm….I’ve heard of this one, FIctionFan, and I must admit that the puzzle aspect of it appeals to me. But I do like credibility in what I read, so I’m not sure this one would appeal to me on that score. It does sound as though it’s laid out in an unusual way. Sometimes that can work well, and sometimes…not. I have to say, the title got my attention!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I looked at a few other reviews and it definitely seems to rate more highly for people who enjoy the puzzle type of mystery, and that aspect of it is very good – quite fun to try to work out. And the writing is good. The format, though, is just a bit awkward in feel, somehow. I wasn’t sure whether I was going to enjoy it at first but it won me over in the second half… 🙂

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  2. The structure of this sounds a bit odd, I wonder what she was attempting to achieve? I’m glad it more or less worked for you as a mystery though, and improved over all during the second half.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know – she got much more into her stride when she was showing the relationship between Harry the poet and Hester, so I wonder if she just felt she had to make it a crime novel to give it a point? Apparently she only wrote a few and then gave up, which is a pity since she clearly had talent.

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  3. Even when mysteries aren’t oddly presented, I have trouble working them out ahead of time. I’m sure I’d be totally lost with this one! (and I’m still laughing – perhaps inappropriately – at the thought of planes commonly falling out of the sky en route to Dublin in the 50s)

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    • Haha, I’m hopeless at puzzle-type mysteries – I can occasionally guess ones that are based on motive and character, but clues go right over my head. The whole plane thing seemed so odd – I kept waiting for them to announce what caused the crash but I don’t think they ever did – if they did, I must have missed that bit!

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  4. When you first mentioned this one, I’ll admit I thought it sounded intriguing. I’m sorry it failed to live up to your expectations though. Maybe she wrote the second half first and really spent some time plotting and so forth, before throwing together the first half? There are LOTS of ways to write a book — I’ve even heard of folks who start in the very middle, then work their way back and forth! Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but what do I know??!

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    • Haha, I can never understand all the complicated ways authors find to write books! I felt in this she was more interested maybe in the relationship between Harry the poet and Hester than the actual crime element, but because the second half was stronger it turned out quite enjoyable in the end… 😀

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  5. It seems strange that it would be so difficult to identify the bodies of the dead men? Does it say why? We’re dental records not really a thing in the 1950s? With all the protocol around flying these days, I’m having trouble imagining how this could be a plot!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Aha, see, you’re clearly cut out to be a forensics expert! Sadly, they didn’t recover the bodies from the sea which was what made identification impossible. But on the whole credibility wasn’t a major feature of the book! Haha, I know! People seemed to take the whole falling out of the sky thing so calmly… 😱

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    • Haha, I think I’m too pedantic sometimes for vintage crime – I’m sure the plane falling out of the sky thing was only there to set up the plot, but I got a bit fixated on it! 😉 It really does have an excellent logic puzzle in it, though, so if you enjoy that aspect then I think this would be well worth your time!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, so do I, which always baffles me a bit since I get very annoyed about lack of credibility in contemporary crime. You’ve reminded me that I intended to do a Best Of list of the BL books since I’ve read loads of them now…

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  6. Sounds like a lovely little puzzle (despite the parts that mashed together to make it fit better) but I avoid books that feature plane crashes more and more. I’ve read one or two, but I’m a nervous flier so they really don’t do me much good 🙂

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