My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”’Good evening, my name is Emilie Hinchliffe.’ More applause. ‘I’ve come here tonight to tell you my story,’ she gestured to the relevant subject of artwork as she spoke. ‘It’s about an heiress, an aeroplane, a ghost and the mightiest airship the world has ever seen. I know you’ve read the story of what happened to me, and to my husband and to many of his friends just recently. Tonight, I’m going to tell you the whole story.”
The Endeavor. The Stinson Detroiter plane used by Captain Hinchliffe and Elise Mackay. Picture provided by David Dennington
On May 20th, 1927, Charles Lindbergh left Roosevelt Field in New York in his custom made, soon to be famous plane The Spirit of St. Louis . He made the crossing in 33.5 hours and became the first man to complete a solo, nonstop flight from New York to a European landmass. He became the most famous man in the world. He also earned $25,000 in prize money.
The race was on to see who could make the trip from East to West.
Captain Raymond Hinchliffe
Captain Raymond Hinchliffe might have been an unlikely candidate to make the trip, but he was one of the most celebrated pilots of his era. During the Great War, he was shot down. He lost an eye in the resulting crash, and one leg would never be right again, but he was undaunted in his abilities to fly as well as any man. After the war, it wasn’t easy for him to find work as a commercial pilot, and frankly, that type of work was unfulfilling. He felt that he had one more great endeavor in him, and no one had beat him to it yet. He wanted to make that flight from East to West across the Atlantic, and the 10,000 pounds in prize money would give him and his wife Millie some security for the future.
Elsie Mackay was a rich girl, not content to just be a socialite. She was an actress, which would be more than enough attention for most other young ladies, but for her, she too wanted to define herself by a bold action. There were few pilots in the 1920s, but there were really only a handful of female pilots. Some might say she was recklessly trying to impress her father, Lord Inchcape. Being the first woman to cross the Atlantic was a prize well worth trying for, despite the danger. For a woman as progressive as Elsie, keeping pace with the boys was not only fun and exciting, but also essential.
Captain Hinchliffe and his wife Millie.
Millie Hinchliffe was the wife of Captain Hinchliffe, a concert level pianist, and an accomplished painter. She had a knack for portrait painting; sometimes she expressed so well the inner life of her subject that it could be an uncomfortable revelation for the portrait sitter. Winston Churchill noticed her particular ability to capture the auras of her subjects. As this novel progressed, her otherworldly abilities became more acute, and she began to see visions that scared her into action to attempt to warn people of impending disaster. Her most terrifying vision of all regarded the mightiest airship ever built, the Cardington R101.
To know something horrifying that no one else knows is frustrating and lonely.
Meanwhile, the race was on for Hinchliffe and Mackay to get their Stinson Detroiter plane modified for the trip across the Atlantic. They knew a German team was nearly ready to attempt the crossing. There were no second place medals. There could only be one first. The tension was revving up with each new chapter.
One of the things I most enjoy about Dennington’s books is his development of female characters. They are not merely furniture or cardboard cutouts. They are women who are multi-talented and not at all compelled to be confined to a traditional role. They want to experience life on the same scale that any man would want. We certainly should not to forget these women of the air who dared to challenge this new frontier. Lauren Notaro, author of Crossing the Horizon, released this short, but poignant, video commemorating those women. Please do give it a quick look. 1:38 video of Crossing the Horizon
This book intersects with Dennington’s other book The Airshipmen, which I have also read and reviewed. Some characters in one book show up in the other. In his first book, he tells the tale of the airship Cardington R101. A special pleasure for me is that he brings the writer and engineer Nevil Shute to life and reminds me how much I enjoy his writing. I now have
Let’s return briefly to Millie so you can have some idea of the visions this poor woman was experiencing. The trick was to even interpret what she was seeing with any level of certainty.
”The train jerked forward. It traveled slowly away, she from him, he from her. He became drowned in black smoke. It was then, in the blackness, she saw his aura--usually vibrant multicolors--now predominantly purple and mauve. As she moved away, the black smoke, too, turned into swirling clouds of purple. She didn’t take her eyes from him until he was gone. She had an unbearable sinking feeling as he disappeared. What did it mean? She sank into her seat. As she’d watched him, she’d felt his spirit slipping away, as though this iron monster was pulling them apart, clacking wheels measuring the distance yard by yard. She felt terribly afraid.”
What does it mean?
David Dennington kindly agreed to answer a few questions.
Jeffrey D. Keeten: “The problem, of course, with the art of clairvoyance is that the demand for answers from so many people who lost someone in the Great War created opportunities for charlatans.”
David Dennington: “This was true after WW1 and the R101 disaster. I reckon probably only ten percent were genuine. Money was scarce, too, and it was a good way to pick up a few pounds/dollars.”
Jeffrey D. Keeten: “I've read before about the belief held by Arthur Conan Doyle which you explored in your novel, but I'm curious to know if you believe in clairvoyants?”
Arthur Conan Doyle spirit photo.
David Dennington: “Conan Doyle was a lovely guy. A bit naïve and was taken for a ride at times, I think. This is why I wanted to sit in circle and develop my own psychic ability. Then I could say, ‘I saw it myself’.”
JDK: “Can we speak with the dead? Have you attended a legitimate seance?”
DD: “Yes, sometimes, and yes, I have. I can only speak for myself. Growing up as a child, I always felt as though something was there. At 10, I distinctly remember being in my little schoolroom and looking round at all the girls. I liked girls. I thought what it might be like to be married. I was told that my wife’s name would begin with the letter ‘J.’ For many years, I went to school with a good friend who said his grandmother was a ‘medium’ and would I like to meet her. I always declined—not courageous enough. But when my father died at 48, when I was 20, he asked me again, and I said ‘yes.’ She was a kindly old soul with smiling eyes who chuckled all the time. Mrs. East is based on her and a composite of my own Nan who sat beside the picture on the wall of her own son ‘Lawrie,’ torpedoed by a Uboat in WW2. His death overshadowed the family all my life. So, the old lady took me to the Spiritualist church where I ‘sat in circle’ for a year or so; it is eerily similar to Mrs East in The Ghost. My own psychic development did occur. I do have some interesting tales to tell of my experiences and some over the years since. In circle, I did encounter mediums who were ‘powerful.’ You could actually feel it coming from their bodies, like electricity (ah, now I’m thinking of Madam Harandah!) There were others who I think were just ‘wannabees’ with no power at all. I attended ‘transfigurations,’ which was interesting, and was invited to ‘materializations,’ which I declined, feeling it was too open to fraud and the ‘darkside.’ But Millie Hinchliffe did go to all those things. I am thinking of writing a memoir of all my experiences in the psychic realm.”
“The thing about being given something, like a sign, is usually very small. But to you personally, when it happens, it’s huge. But when told to someone else, it might sound daft, or that you’ve got a screw loose. I’ll give you a couple of instances. The first one was when I’d returned from Bermuda with my family to London and was pretty depressed after being in such an exotic place, leading the life of Riley. I planned to take a job in Florida, which my friend Mike (we’d been friends from our Bahama days) had arranged for me. But I thought I would go up to London to Belgrave Square to the Spiritualist Alliance and get a reading (yes, the same place Millie went to with Mrs. East). I went there, and the medium, a man, was wary of me, thinking I was a journalist (I had a pencil and a notebook). He said I would go and live in Africa, to which I thought, ‘I will never set foot in Africa.’ As I was going out the door, he said, ‘You will write a book, a very big book, and it will be rather wonderful!’ Then he pointed at me and said, ‘You must pay your taxes!’ I’ve thought about that for years. If you look at the map, South Florida and Africa look similar. I was leaving for South Florida the following week. I wonder if he’d been shown a map and got it wrong. I wrote a ‘big book’ thirty years later. And I later got into massive trouble over my taxes, which hit me like a Mack truck—all unintentional on my part.”
“The second thing happened this year. And could be pure coincidence. My best friend Mike of fifty years (who found me the job in Florida) died of brain cancer in November last year. We are all like family. I was in Bermuda in May and during the night got up and came back to my room in the dark. I sat on the bed and fondly thought of my buddy Mike and imagined him saying to me, ‘I love you man; you are my brother, you know.’ Then I felt something weird in my left ear and put my hand to it. Something was stuck to my ear. I pulled it off and put the light on. I was a heart—a child’s sticky icon left on the bed by my grandchildren. There were others, I discovered, of the alphabet. What struck me was that it was over my ear, and it was the valentine symbol of love. It could have been a letter from the alphabet. Now, to you it probably all sounds silly, but I just wonder. I keep an open mind but am always skeptical. Mike, like Christopher Hitchens, was an atheist, and we had some fights about it. He was almost bitter about the subject. We had a set to about it in Spain, and on leaving, he hugged me goodbye. Somehow I knew that would be the last time I’d see him, though we tried three times to get to Florida to see him but were prevented by hurricanes, etc. In passing, I have to tell you that I love Hitchens and agree with most of what he says (and love to watch him on Youtube). I think to believe in God, the afterlife, and all that, you have to have imagination or, should I say, an imaginative type of mind. Hitchens was a Marxist, but he thought for himself; he did not move with the herd, and that made him fascinating to the media (and of course, he was light years ahead of all of them). Now like Mike, I wonder if he’s changed his views now he’s ‘over there’! Sorry, I digress.”
JDK: “Your two novels intersect. Have you any plans to build on this world with your next novel? There are so many interesting characters associated with this period of history. I could really see you being able to do four or five novels without leaving the confines of your original research too far.”
DD:”I love this idea and often think of doing it. Some people have said they would have liked to know more about the airship crewmen and that I didn’t tell enough about their lives—as if it wasn’t long enough already! Then there’s Martha and Ramsay MacDonald, of course.”
JDK:”You have an affinity for bringing strong female characters, real or imaginary, to life.”
DD: “Thank you.”
Elsie Mackay. Picture provided by David Dennington.
JDK: “Most memorably for me was Countess Marthe Bibesco from The Airshipmen. In this novel, Millie Hinchliffe and Elsie Mackay are so vividly portrayed one might say they still haunt me.”
DD: “Thank you. No author could ask for more than that.”
JDK “For that reason I would highly recommend your books to men and women without reservations. Male readers and female readers will find people they can identify with and, in some cases, maybe someone from the opposite sex. Was this a conscious part of your writing to achieve this balance?”
DD: “Actually, I don’t consciously do that. I listen. And I write down what they say. It’s like taking dictation. I think I can feel and think what a woman feels and thinks. Maybe it was from being around my mother as an only child with my Dad at work at nights, printing the Daily Mirror. Or, maybe, and this is just a big maybe, it’s from past lives, if you believe in any of that!”
JDK: “You must have a few female beta readers who must say from time to time, ‘Oh David, she wouldn't say that or do that?”
DD: “That has not happened yet. I have had a few Nevil Shute fans say I write like him. Sometimes I think he’s been looking over my shoulder. I kick myself now that I didn’t bring him into The Ghost. He could have been in the pub and met Hinch and Millie. He could have come down and had his portrait painted, and he could have advised her on writing her own book.”
A posed photo of Elsie Mackay. I love the shoes!
JDK: “What I really like about your female characters is the fact that they are multi-talented women. They aren't just good at one thing. That is certainly why I find them so fascinating.”
DD: “Thank you. I love women. All the women in my life have been wonderful: My Nan, my mother Lena, Aunt Vi (Lawrie’s sister--still alive and more like my sister), my cousin Dawn, my daughter (who is a super intelligent Tufts graduate, my editor, and the best read person I know), and Jennifer, my wife with a 'J.'”
“Thank you again, Jeffrey. As a writer, I must say you are someone who really 'gets it.'”
JDK: My special thanks to David Dennington for graciously agreeing to answer my questions and for providing me with several photos that I used in this review.
The Ghost of Captain Hinchliffe Video.
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