The setting is a crucial ingredient to any mystery. It influences the story’s tone and atmosphere, how a murderer might execute their crime, and the number of suspects moving in and out of that space. While transportation mysteries are widely popular, one less-utilised transit setting by crime writers is air travel. Commercial air travel began in the early 20th century, and since planes were a fairly new form of transportation, it seems that few golden age writers took up the challenge of setting a crime in the skies. However, for those craving a mystery in flight, below is a list of seven mysteries that are set on aeroplanes.
1. The Man Who Didn’t Fly by Margot Bennett (1955)
When a plane en route to Dublin crashes into the Irish Sea in a fireball, it is discovered that four passengers were meant to board the plane, but only three did. With the identities of the three men lost beneath the waves, there begins a confounding investigation to determine the living from the dead.
Who was the man who didn’t fly? What did he gain, if anything, from the deaths of the others? First published in 1955, Bennett’s mystery has been described as an innovative and thoroughly entertaining inversion of the classic whodunnit.
In this howdunnit mystery, the reader is immediately presented with the murder of Andrew Crowther, a wealthy retired manufacturer. He is found dead in his seat on the 12.30 flight from Croydon to Paris. In unorthodox fashion, the narrative then flashes back to weeks prior to the crime. The reader follows the killer himself from his first thoughts of murder to the tension he experiences after its execution. Uniquely, the reader’s first glimpse of Crofts’s recurring detective Inspector French is seen from the criminal’s perspective.
An unconventional yet gripping story of betrayal, obsession and self-delusion, The 12.30 from Croydon is the Shedunnit Book Club’s pick for August. Join the book club now to read along with the group and get access to a members-only podcast episode all about this book.
When an airplane crashes and its pilot is killed, Edwin Marriott, the Bishop of Cootamundra in Australia, happens to be on hand while in England on leave. The Bishop is not convinced that the pilot’s death was accidental. In due course, naturally, he is proved right. The Bishop and Inspector Bray of Scotland Yard join forces, making an appealing pair of detectives. Ultimately, they uncover a particularly cunning criminal scheme.
4. Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie (1935)
A woman is killed by a poisoned dart in the enclosed confines of a commercial passenger plane flying from Paris to London. Somehow, no one witnessed the murder, not even the world’s greatest private detective, Hercule Poirot. As a passenger on that very flight, Poirot’s seat should have allowed him to observe most of his fellow passengers. However, when the victim is discovered in the seat behind his own, Poirot is determined to bring to justice the killer who dared commit a crime right under the famed sleuth’s nose.
5. Death Rides the Air Line by William Sutherland (1934)
Traveling from Boston to Newark, the chief owner of a chain of newspapers, Walter Schlaf, is stabbed to death in the air. Four of his known enemies are among the passengers and crew on the flight. In a series of flashbacks into the lives of the murder victim and the mystery’s four primary suspects, the reader must piece together each individual motive and decide who had the most to gain in Walter Schlaf’s death.
Set in Queensland, Australia, this is the third instalment of the Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte mysteries. A stolen red monoplane is discovered on the dry, flat bottom of Emu Lake with no pilot and one mysterious passenger. This unidentified young woman is found dying from a drug-induced paralysis. As the woman’s health gradually fades and the threat of flooding rains grows ever closer, Inspector “Bony” must hurry to untangle the mystery before him.
Who drugged this woman and why? And how is it possible that no footprints can be found near the abandoned monoplane?
This mystery takes the locked-room trope to a whole new level. How does a man disappear from a locked bathroom on a plane in mid-flight? Translated from its original Italian by Igor Longo, The Flying Boat Mystery challenges reader to solve that mind-bending question. Assistant Commissioner Luigi Renzi of the Rome police acknowledges four solutions: accident, suicide, murder, and purposeful escape. Each of which he then demonstrates convincingly to have been impossible!
In that case, what could possibly be the correct solution?
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Leandra Griffith is a production assistant for Shedunnit. Her favourite detective fiction features playful metafiction, locked rooms, and sidekick narrators. A golden age mystery she recently finished is The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne.