Trains and boats and planes are passing by
They mean a trip to Paris or Rome
For someone else but not for me
The trains and the boats and planes
Took you away, away from me
I’m sure when Burt Bacharach wrote this melancholy song, he never imagined that the thing that “took you away . . . from me” – to Rome, no less – might be a gunshot to the brain or a knife in the heart. But then we have no idea whether or not Bacharach shared my passion for a good classic travel mystery.
Crime novels set in far-flung places may make questionable advertisements for travel, as they turn much-beloved destinations into deathtraps, but I love them. Even more than that, I adore stories set on the journey toward those places. Trains and boats and planes make jolly good settings for a closed circle of suspects to commit dastardly clever crimes. You could book passage on the Orient Express or the Blue Train and be sure to find a butchered corpse before breakfast! Even more luxurious were the ocean liners and river steamers where you just might find yourself sharing a bottle with the likes of Gideon Fell, Hercule Poirot, Hildegarde Withers or Sir Henry Merrivale. Heck, in Marion Mainwairing’s Murder in Pastiche: or Nine Detectives All at Sea, you could travel with all of them.
“Mon dieu! How did I get here???”
The mystery authors of the 1930’s took advantage of the rising popularity of air travel. Hildegarde Withers solves a murder that took place on a small passenger plane in 1933’s The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (filmed in 1935 as Murder on a Honeymoon), and Charlie Chan, in the person of Sidney Toler, does the same in my favorite Chan film, 1940’s Charlie Chan in Panama; however, neither detective was on board at the time. 1935 was certainly a popular year for airplane mysteries: Death in the Clouds (1935), which takes place on a small airplane flying across the English channel, is B Christie through and through, but still fun and clever. That same year, C. Daly King attempted to dazzle – but mostly bored – future readers with Obelists Fly High.
Trust me – you do not want to be on this flight!
A pattern emerges here where this newfangled contraption, tightly spaced and isolated way up in the air, provides the perfect setting for an impossible crime. This pattern is confirmed with a third mystery that appeared the same year and which, thanks to the auspices of John Pugmire at Locked Room International, along with the translation talents of Igor Longo, a good friend to all at the Golden Age of Detection page on Facebook, is available for the first time to English-speaking readers.
Franco Vailati’s The Flying Boat Mystery introduces Vice Questore (Assistant Commissioner) Luigi Renzi of the Rome Police and his old school friend Giorgio Vallesi, a reluctant journalist, as they attempt to figure out the secret behind an impossible disappearance on the Dornier-Wal 134 seaplane travelling from Rome to Palermo. Vallesi himself was one of twelve passengers on that short, ill-fated, flight during which distinguished banker Francesco Agliati stepped into the small bathroom at the front of the plane – and never emerged. When the door of the bathroom is broken down, the space is empty!
How could Agliati have been spirited – or have spirited himself – away? A skylight in the ceiling of the bathroom is too small for the heavyset financier to have squeezed through, and the door to the bathroom has been in the sightlines of passengers and crew for the entirety of the flight. Furthermore, nobody seems to have been able to approach Agliati or effect his disappearance at any time.
The regular police can only scratch their heads. And yet Renzi is sure that some sort of foul play is afoot. His suspicions only grow as he investigates the list of people present on the plane, including an aging femme fatale, a mysterious young beauty who has attracted the amorous attentions of the good Giorgio, a convicted criminal flying under an assumed name, a stowaway passenger who happens to work for a bank, and others who may have motives for wanting Agliati to disappear. Yet how could any of them have been responsible for Agliati’s disappearance when none of them had any contact with the banker throughout the flight?
We eventually get all the answers, thanks to Renzi, of course, but mostly thanks to Pugmire and Locked Room International, providing fans of locked rooms and of classic mysteries in general with a sampling of mysteries from multiple nations. Admittedly, considering that LRI is the American translator/publisher of Paul Halter – and considering works by Noel Vindry, Gaston Boca, Henry Cauvin and Jean-Paul Torok – the focus has been on France. But the list is growing – is this the time to insert another insistent plea for more shin honkaku? – and now we can add Italy to the mix!
Please, sir, may I have some more???
One can hardly lay claim to understanding the Italian mystery from one book, but we are helped here with an afterward by Igor Longo that is equal parts informative, touching, and frustrating. Informative because Igor goes to some lengths to explain/decry the Italians’ pervasive antipathy toward the genre. Touching because you can see how much it hurts a classic crime fan like Mr. Longo to live in a country that basically doesn’t like whodunnits or impossible crimes. And frustrating because Igor mentions several top-drawer Italian authors who wrote classic whodunits inspired by the likes of S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen, but since they aren’t impossible crimes, it’s uncertain when English readers will ever see the likes of The Gondola of Death by Augusto de Angelis, The Den of Philosophers by Giorgio Scerbanenco, The Cardboard Nose by Ezio D’Errico, or The Nail of the Lion by Tito Spagnol.
As it turns out, according to Igor, the locked room mysteries that did emerge from Italy came from the hands of second-drawer literary talents, of which one was Franco Vailati. He was in reality a journalist named Leo Wollenborg, Jr. and dabbled only this once in the mystery genre, then moved to America, became a U.S. citizen and fought for our country in World War II. The Flying Boat Mystery was published in the 1930’s in an attempt by the Mondadori publishing house to do something about the historical lack of “fantastic fiction” in the annals of Italian literature.
It’s certainly an immensely readable tale, and while I sometimes take issue with the Halter translations, I think Igor did a fine job here. Since Italian writers had no historical precedent to play off of – no Poe, Collins, Chesterton or the like to inspire them – a lot of their crime fiction clearly pointed to American and British influences. There’s a snappy tone throughout here, both in the dialogue and in the action. Similarly, while the beginning and the end hearken to Carr, with its striking beginning and tie-it-all-together finale, much of the middle reminds me of American pulps. For once the disappearance has taken place in Chapter One, Vailati cuts a wide melodramatic swath through the center of the book as we follow Renzi around as he tracks down information about everyone on the plane, while Giorgio pursues romance from a beautiful suspect.
“Ditch the car, Sonny . . . get me a ticket for an aeroplane!”
In true GAD fashion, everyone has dark secrets; in the manner of the Italians, much of this seems to involve the mob. This may explain why the second crime that occurs is as gruesomely brutal as the first is elegantly inexplicable. Even then, Renzi engages in some neat deductions regarding luggage to prove the guilt or innocence of a certain suspect. I have to confess – and maybe it was because I was reading this novel at a very busy time in my life – that so muchhappens in the gooey middle of this novel that I was sometimes bewildered by it all. Classic crime stories clearly beg to be read in one or two sittings, so I’m doing due diligence here by informing you that my reading time was all chopped up. Make of that what you will.
Those of you who have followed along with my adventures in GAD reading may be aware that when it comes to impossible crimes, I’m a bit of a halfwit. I always focus on the who and why of a mystery, and the how usually makes no sense at all. And so it gives me great satisfaction to tell you that, in the case of Vailati’s novel, the reverse happened to me here. I take great issue with the who and the why: I think it breaks the rules, as I interpret them, of good classic detective fiction. Of course, to explain why I feel this way would be to spoil things for you – and I have no intention of doing that.
What about this guy?
However, I thought the method of Agliati’s disappearance from the locked bathroom on the tiny plane was quite clever – ludicrous in the way these things are but elegantly simple in the extreme. So while the other elements of the mystery ultimately frustrated me, I recommend the book for the how of it, and as a remarkable historical document of 1935 pre-WWII Italy (but limited, as there’s not a mention of the royal wedding, of Mussolini or the tumultuous world stage to be found): a bustling, crowded country connected by highways and seaplanes, as fond of good eating, ogling women and joining the Mafia as one might suspect, and as confirmation that the joy of GAD, perfected by the Americans and the British, managed to inspire yet another country to some literary cleverness.