Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Dying High: Death Rides the Air Line (1934), by William Sutherland

William Sutherland's Death Rides the Air Line, published by Claude Kendall in 1934, is something of an experimental Golden Age mystery. 

Probably what will most immediately strike a lot people is its resemblance to a 1935 Agatha Christie detective novel, Death in the Clouds/Death in the Air.  In both novels, there is a murder of a passenger on an airplane.  Did Christie read Sutherland's novel, which was published in England, or was this just a coincidence (or did she read Freeman Wills Crofts' The 12.30 from Croydon, also published in 1934)?

a very fragile copy of the Death Rides the Air Line dust jacket (Claude Kendall)
note the advertisement for the controversial Twisted Clay on the back panel

Aside from the initial setting, however, there is not much resemblance between the novels.  Christie's tale is a classic puzzle mystery from the 1930s, with a fiendishly clever plot and clueing.  Sutherland's book moves the emphasis elsewhere.

As Sutherland writes in his preface: "I have endeavored, moreover, by the use of a somewhat unusual structural design, to help the reader see the people concerned in it as they really were, rather than as the conventional, puppet-like characters of works of fiction."

After only fifty-three pages--in which Sutherland assembles the crew and passengers on a plane taking off from Boston, murders one of the passengers over New York (stabbing), and brings Detective-Inspector Grady in to investigate--Sutherland leaves the present in order give us flashbacks into the lives of the murder victim, ruthless newspaper publisher Walter Schlaf, and four passengers: Russell DeWitt, New York judge, Marguerite Rose, good time gal, Timothy Cowley, gangster, and August Jensen, pilot.

These flashbacks provide motives for the passengers, but are mostly designed to give the novel greater character interest.  The flashbacks for Schlaf, Rose and Cowley I thought were especially engrossing (Judge DeWitt's was more hackneyed).

the English edition
has a stylish jacket too
In his introduction Sutherland notes that the events depicted in the novel occur "during the final days of Prohibition" and he hopes that this fact will "add some special interest, as well as throw some more light on the conditions which that unfortunate law produced in America."  The Rose and Cowley sections take particular advantage of this setting.

Marguerite Rose is like a character out of the musical Chicago (which doesn't necessarily mean she "done it," mind you, though you can definitely imagine her breaking out into her own personal rendition of "He Had It Coming").  This is one hard-boiled dame!

At sixteen or seventeen, evidently, Rose sidles up to her teenage soda jerk boyfriend, Freddy, and tells him she needs fifty dollars:

"What do you want it for?"
"Well, I'm going to have a baby, and it'll take fifty dollars to get rid of it."
"What?  you don't mean--"
"Yeah.  You're the proud father.  That time at the cottage."

Marguerite eventually ends up as a burlesque performer in New York.  In one of her acts she appears as the Statue of Liberty:

The latter production was raided by the police, who seemed to think that the torch, the only thing she had on, gave too much light to the scene.  The legal proceedings lasted long enough to enable Joe Biggum to parade his whole chorus in the court-room.  Then he agreed to give Marguerite a smaller torch, and the case was dropped.  After that the theatre was full every night.

title page (Claude Kendall edition)
I think an entire novel devoted to Marguerite Rose, with or without her torch, might have been interesting.

After the flashbacks the last seventy pages are again devoted to the present, in which Inspector Grady providentially finds one material clue that lets him solve the case.

As a mystery, Death Rides the Air Line is hardly one of the classics, but there is more character interest than one often finds in books from this period, and the Prohibition setting is well done.  The flashbacks actually left me wanting more, however.

So I would say that Air Line something of a neither-fish-nor-fowl book, though it is not without appeal.


  1. Sounds like I might enjoy this one.

  2. It's definitely different, I'll have to see whether it can be reprinted.

  3. This does sound fascinating. And I have to say, the artwork on both the US and UK editions is exceptional; especially the typography. It sounds like a similarly original construction for the plot; I hope someone can bring this book back to print!

    1. Noah, I am going to look into it. I agree about the typography, very nifty!

  4. Curtis, other novel there are: Stuart Palmer's The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1933), a novel remembered by Mike Grost, Philip Wylie's "Death Flies East" (1934), novel I don't know; and "Obelists Fly High" (1935) by Charles Daly King.
    Daly King has probably set a record: about six books written by him, three were set on means of transport: a plane (Obelists Fly High), a ship (Obelists at sea), a train (Obelists en Route). It's true that Agatha Christie wrote novels set of means of transport: "The Mystery of the Blue Train," "Murder on the Orient Express" and "4:50 From Paddington" (train), "Death on the Nile" and together other writers "The floating admiral" (ship), "Death in the Clouds" (airplane) and at in "Peril at the End House" an airplane enters a smear in the plot , but however Daly King wrote three novels among six, A. Christie wrote 5 (6) if I remember correctly among more than 80 novels. The record is by Daly King, indeed italian writer Franco Valiati who wrote one .. on a seaplane: Il Mistero dell'idrovolante (1939).
    Now that I think, there is also your favorite writer, John Rhode who wrote novels about crime on public transport: Tragedy on the Line, Death on the Boat Train, Death in the Tunnel (train), The Corpse in the Car (Car), "Dr. Priestley investigates" seems to me (car), but I do not remember a novel with a plot that relates in some way a plane.


    1. Hi, Pietro, I didn't realize The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree had a murder on a plane. I see it even has a diagram of the plane, just like Christie's novel, and 1933 would make it the earliest so far.

      Yes, I'm famialir with King, wish I had all his books, some are very, very rare indeed!

    2. Oh! I have never heard of the Wylie book either, another from 1934.

  5. I'd never heard of Death Flies East either. And that's because it's a novella that only appeared in American Magazine, home of novellas by Q Patrick, Kelley Roos and good ol' Rex Stout. But Garland reprinted the Wylie story along with ten other novellas in one of those library only editions. It's called American Murders, 11 Rediscovered Short Novels from the American Magazine (1934-1954). It was edited by Jon and Rita Breen and published in 1986. One copy for sale online for $149. Yikes! Probably better to find it through a library.

  6. The "Il Mistero dell'idrovolante" (translation in English The Seaplane Mystery Case), I think never published in U.S., by Italian writer Franco Valiati is a strong locked room, the only locked room published by an italian writer to date. I wrote years ago a novel with three locked room but it has not yet been published. So, Franco Valiati is the only italian locked room writer of novels. Instead, talking about short stories, I have written several short stories with locked rooms, also published.
    At this, I don't know if I am the only or not. :-)

  7. And who the heck was William Sutherland?!?

    He wrote three books in the 1933-35 time period, all seemingly murder mysteries:
    Murder Behind the Head-lines (1933)
    Death Rides the Air Line (1934) [reprinted 1940 Wells, Gardner & Co]
    The Proverbial Murder Case (1935)
    all published by Arrowsmith.

    The publisher, J W Arrowsmith of Bristol (11 Quay St) was publishing Christmas Annuals as early as 1885. Both a book printer and publisher, they opened shop in 1857. Among other things, they published the first edition of Jerome K Jerome's "Three Men in a Boat" in 1889. (Available at

  8. Thanks for the detail, SP, will have to to an update post.

  9. I have a copy of the UK Arrowsmith edition, sadly without the dust jacket. It seems to have been published in a paperback series called Big Ben Books as well