The Circuit of Nations Olympics of the Air, August 1937, provides an unconventional context for this murder mystery. The Circuit is Europe’s first youth air race, in which a dozen flyers, all under 21, represent their countries. They set off from Old Sarum Airfield, Salisbury, touch down for overnight stops in Brussels, Geneva, Venice, Prague, Hamburg and Amsterdam, before finishing at Le Bourget in Paris. At each stop, they are besieged by clamouring reporters and feted at banquets and receptions graced by some of the most eminent dignitaries in Europe.
The pilots are male with the exception of our narrator, 17-year-old Stella North (a.k.a. ‘Northie’) the U.K. competitor. They are closely watched over, in the air and on the ground, by four ‘chaperones’; three celebrated aces of the Great War and the woman who conceived the whole project, hoping to promote peace between the participating nations, the colourful Lady Diana Frith, herself an experienced aviator.
On race days, the planes take off at intervals calculated to include a time handicap, determined by the power of each aircraft; thus, the competition is based on accumulated flight times reflecting the skills of each flyer. To Northie’s horror, on the first day of the race, she witnesses one aircraft forcing another down into the ocean. As she searches for signs of life among the floating wreckage, she knows there could be no survivor.
The plot develops in complexity in each of the cities en route. These venues with their contrasting cultures may well intrigue YA readers. Although the brutalities of Kristallnacht have not yet shaken Europe, the presence of armed police and the Gestapo on the night-time streets of Hamburg is a chilling revelation for Northie, though not for Antoine (Tony), the French pilot, who has already seen action flying for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He is all too aware of the Nazi Condor Legion’s role in the devastation of Guernica. By contrast, the inexperienced Luftwaffe officer, Sebastian, has heard no mention of the town at home in Germany.
The race serves as a backcloth to the murder plot. Elizabeth Wein is a pilot herself, but there is relatively little about the skills of flying or technical aspects of the aircraft, which readers may find disappointing, since her knowledge is clearly extensive. There are few ambiguities or false leads and our heroes are increasingly sure of the murderer’s identity, if not motive, well before the concluding chapters. Northie and Tony become targets for the killer themselves, and now the tension of the plot stems from the dangers they face. In such circumstances, it’s no surprise that the course of their growing relationship does not run smooth. But they come to see they have much in common; both were born in Russia, both lost parents to violent deaths, both have been ‘Stateless’. Their discovery of each other, as Wein emphasises in a brief afterword, enables them to achieve a deeper sense of belonging – ‘belonging to no place and yet to every place’.
Readers may well wonder what lies in wait – only a couple of years ahead – for all those young European aviators.