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
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)|
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.