BIGGLES TAKES THE CASE
by Captain W. E. Johns
VII. THE CASE OF THE SECRET AEROFOIL (Pages 137 – 151)
This story was originally published in THE ACE BOOK OF COMICS (1951) by Odhams Press Ltd, where it was called “THE NEW AEROFOIL” and subtitled “A Biggles Adventure”. Johns original title was “THE SECRET AEROFOIL” and I don’t know why Odhams changed it. The story ran from pages 95 to 102. I know it was written well before publication as Johns’ agent received the story from him on 8th February 1950, the story having been written between 24th January 1950 and 8th February 1950. A comparison of the text reveals that it was significantly shorter than the version in Biggles Takes the Case. Whether the story had been written by Johns and edited down for the Ace Book version, or whether Johns had padded out the original story with additional text for the reprinting in Biggles Takes the Case, I don’t know. I strongly suspect that Johns added to it, because Johns were being paid around 5 guineas per thousand words at this time. (There were 21 shillings to the guinea and 12 pence to the shilling, so this is effectively one and a quarter penny per word). It would be strange if you were cutting down on the number of words you had asked for and paid for. This summary is of the longer version from Biggles Takes the Case. The additions to extend the story are far too numerous to detail in full).
Air Commodore Raymond (“chief of his Department at Scotland Yard” in the Ace Book, but just “chief of his Department” in Biggles Takes the Case) enters the Air Police Operational Headquarters and says he has had “a rather sticky business thrown” at him. “Matter of fact, Inspector Gaskin of ‘C’ Department is already on the job, but he’s just rung up to say that he could do with a little technical advice – if you were available”. (This is the first mention of Inspector Gaskin, who will become a regular character in the Air Police stories, although the lines referring to Gaskin here in Biggles Takes the Case do not appear in the Ace Book version. Indeed, significant parts of the opening conversation with Raymond are not in the Ace Book). “That’s all right with me”, agreed Biggles. “I like Gaskin. He won’t stand for any nonsense. What’s the trouble?” Raymond says that Biggles would have read about Flight Lieutenant Brand, a test pilot at the Experimental Establishment, being killed yesterday. Brand was testing a new type of top secret aerofoil (an aerofoil, or airfoil, is a shaped surface, such as an airplane wing, tail or propeller blade, that produces lift and drag when moved through the air). The device was an ideal compromise between fast and slow speeds; or adjustable variation. A machine to which it is fitted can be slowed down, without risk of stalling, “almost to the speed of an helicopter”. The device was operated from the cockpit. The device had been fitted to a new light two-seater aircraft called the Crane. “The design is fairly orthodox except that the undercarriage consists of two legs attached to the main wing spars. This gives an exceptionally wide track, and so reduces the risk of the machine overturning should a wheel strike an obstruction on rough ground”. Raymond says it looks as if Brand had made a forced landing in a field, misjudged his distance and ran head on into some trees. Two farm labourers heard the crash at precisely one o’clock. They got to Brand when he was still alive. His skull was fractured at the back of his head. He made a remark to a doctor in a rambling sort of way about a “new Persian”. The mystery in the case is that Brand took off at nine o’clock and only had fuel for a maximum of three hours. He must have been on the ground for a least an hour. Biggles asks if the crash is still there. (In Biggles Takes the Case, Raymond’s reply is “Yes. It was not to be touched until the Inspector of Accidents had seen it. Gaskin is there”. In the Ace Book version, the reply is “Yes. Our man, Inspector Gaskin, is there with it” which is the first mention of Gaskin in the Ace Book version). After the Air Commodore leaves, Biggles says that he is after the skunk that killed Brand. Ginger is surprised as he thought Brand was killed in the crash. Biggles says “Brand was dead, or as near dead as makes no difference, when his machine hit the trees”. Biggles tells Ginger that a pilot of Brand’s experience doesn’t make daft errors and in a crash, you hit the front of your head, not the back. Biggles thinks the plane was run into the trees and if he is right, the throttle will still be open and the switch on. Had Brand been conscious, the last thing he would have done before a crash would be to switch off. Biggles says they will take the Proctor and go and have a look. Twenty minutes later they are circling over the scene of the tragedy. Biggles points out to Ginger the wide wheel track of the Crane, which shows where the aircraft landed alongside the hedge in a nice straight run, then the tracks stop, turn and run on again into the trees. Biggles says Brand wouldn’t have swung like a pupil on his first solo. Ginger says he was thinking the same thing. They land and greet Inspector Gaskin. Biggles checks the cockpit and finds the throttle still open and the switch on. Biggles tells Gaskin “Brand was murdered” and suggests they go to Brand’s station to speak to his C.O. (Commanding Officer). Biggles takes Gaskin with them in the aircraft. (In Biggles Takes the Case, there is an additional conversation about Gaskin having his car, but Biggles saying that is too slow and offering to fly Gaskin instead. Gaskin says “As long as you don’t do anything like that with me”, jerking his thumb towards the crash. This does not appear in the Ace Book version). A quarter of an hour later they are shown into the office of Group-Captain Kidby, the technical head of the Experimental Establishment under whom Brand served. They are told that the night before the test flight, Brand had eaten out with his fiancée, Storna Buchner, and her brother. The Buchners live eight or nine miles away at Overstone Manor and are Hungarian refugees. Kidby says that Miss Buchner was a charming, good-looking, girl and “several of my boys were crazy about her”. “Brand won the race, so to speak”. Kidby confirms that part of the tests Brand was doing would be to make difficult forced landings to try out in actual practice the slow speeds provided by the new aerofoil. Biggles asks if he has heard about a “Persian” coming to live in these parts, but the Group-Captain hasn’t and can’t help. They leave and Biggles says they need to call at Overstone Manor. Biggles tells Gaskin “If Brand more or less had permission to make forced landings I can think of nowhere more likely than the region of Overstone Manor. If he had time to spare surely it would be in the company of his ladylove. He wouldn’t be the first pilot to make an airborne visit to his girl”. Biggles flies to Overstone Manor and from the air, notices wheel tracks, particularly near the barn. He suspects Brand used his brakes there. Biggles lands by the barn and Biggles, Ginger and Gaskin get out. The first thing they notice is a Blue Persian cat. Biggles says Brand didn’t say “new Persian” – it was “Blue Persian”. “I’d say that cat was the last thing Brand saw as he was struck down from behind. In his brief moment of semi-consciousness before he died the memory of that cat still lingered”. Biggles, Ginger and Gaskin go quietly up to the house where they find a dark, smartly-dressed young woman just leaving whilst carrying a package. Gaskin introduces himself as an Inspector from Scotland Yard and the woman tries to run. Gaskin grabs her. (In Biggles Takes the Case, Gaskin says “I think I’d like to see what it is you’re so anxious to hide”. In the Ace Book version, the word “Miss” is added to the end of this sentence). The package is addressed to somebody in Switzerland and Biggles opens it to find a collection of micro-films. Gaskin rings the front door bell and a man answers. Gaskin arrests the man for the murder of Flight Lieutenant Brand. (This is the pen and ink illustration at the beginning of the story on page 138). We are then told that later, found in Overstone Manor, was evidence that the Buchners were enemy agents. They were not brother and sister, but man and wife and their purpose was to obtain information about anything new at the Experimental Establishment, “for which reason the woman had encouraged the attentions of officers on the nearby station”. What actually happened was never ascertained, but a reasonable assumption was that whilst the woman had entertained Brand, the “brother” had taken photographs of the new aerofoil and Brand may have caught him at it. There would then have been an altercation and Buchner clubbed Brand from behind. Buchner, who was a pilot, because his flying licence was found in the house, then faked the accident. “The Crown Prosecutor proved a charge of wilful murder against Buchner, who in due course paid the penalty demanded by law (which was hanging in the 1950s, the last hanging in the UK was in 1964). Brand’s faithless sweetheart was sentenced, as an accessory, to a long term of imprisonment”. (In the Ace Book version, this end summary is fairly brief, only consisting of 70 words. Johns adds substantially to this for the Biggles Takes the Case version as he adds much more explanation and the end summary consists of 233 words).