James Corbett (1887-1958) was a prolific writer of mystery and thriller novels. His 43 known novels fall between the years 1929 and 1951; such an output translates to an average of two novels a year—a considerable feat for any writer.

Of course, with such abundance of writing might well come attendant flaws in quality. The novels of a writer even more prolific in the same field, Roland Daniel,[1] certainly do show an unevenness of the prose craft. However, such was the continued demand for these books that one can understand why writers like Daniel and Corbett were working so hard at their trade in order to make a living—especially during difficult years such as those experienced during The Depression and WWII.

James Corbett’s books were published by the London publisher Herbert Jenkins[2] and we can assume that the author’s books were sufficiently well-received by the reading audience to guarantee his publisher’s continued support. As with Roland Daniel’s books (published by the London firm of Wright & Brown), Corbett’s novels seem to have been aimed at the lending-library market—a market whose raison d’être was the provision to private library subscribers of continual streams of novels by favored authors.

Even though Corbett’s literary productivity was less than Roland Daniel’s, it was still a formidable achievement. When it comes to his devising a fairly original story and following the rules of grammar, Corbett holds his own. However, when it comes to how he expresses himself, and how long it takes to unfold his story, Corbett shows his Achilles’ heels—though ironically these flaws can’t be blamed on the need for swift writing.[3]

Most of James Corbett’s novels are standard murder mystery fare. His more notable books step outside the bounds of realism into the fantastic: outstanding examples would be Devil Man from Mars (1935, a science fiction story), The Man Who Saw the Devil (1934, a scientific horror story), and When Death Walks (1941, a horror story).

With the new Ramble House/Dancing Tuatara Press editions of the Corbett novels Murder Begets Murder, Vampire of the Skies, and The Ghost Plane, we are treated in the latter two books to the author’s excursions into mysterious aircraft thrillers.

The dangerous and devilish aeroplane as a plot device in thriller fiction was used by many writers—but Corbett’s take on the theme is peculiar. Vampire of the Skies (1932) and The Ghost Plane (1939) were published seven years apart, but both could be seen as being the same tale rewritten.

Despite their lurid titles (and without giving away too much of their content), these two novels take the mundane aeroplane and turn it into an object of fear and mass-murder. Vampire of the Skies is more firmly rooted in the nutty serial-killer scenario; The Ghost Plane, however, takes the aircraft motif and boosts it further. Whereas the aeroplane in Vampire of the Skies is deadly and mysterious, it remains a real if elusive thing. In The Ghost Plane we are presented with a far more mysterious flying-machine which incites a greater horror and paranoia because it not only kills, but behaves in an utterly unprecedented manner.

Corbett’s playing on the possibility of mass fear engendered by aircraft is probably no accident given that The Ghost Plane was published in the same year that the Second World War was declared. In the several years following, England—and especially London—would suffer from aircraft attacks in The Blitz.[4] Both Britain and Germany were secretly and desperately working on advances in technology and warfare. It’s not too far a stretch to interpret the aeroplane in The Ghost Plane as a remarkable portent of what would shortly come to terrorize England in real life.

James Corbett would go on to write another aviation thriller, The Air Killer (1941), which by all accounts takes the flying menace theme into even weirder skies. We can suppose that, after the horrors of The Blitz, such deadly threats from the air posed just as enthralling a plot device as any ‘body found in a library’ story.


Gavin L. O’Keefe

South Berwick, Maine

April 2014


[1] Ramble House has reprinted four novels by Roland Daniel: Ruby of a Thousand Dreams, The Return of Wu Fang, The Signal (the latter two books released together as A Roland Daniel Double) and The Girl in the Dark.

[2] At least one Corbett novel, The Merrivale Mystery (his first book), was published in America, by Mystery League in 1931.

[3] Much has been written about the unintentionally humorous and absurd lines penned by Corbett in his books. See the amusing review of Corbett’s The Merrivale Mystery in Bill Pronzini’s Son of Gun in Cheek (The Mysterious Press, NY, 1987, pp. 14-18).

[4] A related disaster during The Blitz was the destruction of many publishers’ book warehouses—with the loss of many books, including, undoubtedly, those of James Corbett published before or at this time. This probably accounts for the subsequent rarity of many of Corbett’s and other writers’ books from the period.