The enthusiasm of others is really very infectious isn’t it? So when I read Simon’s and Karen’s reviews of Nancy Spain novels – someone I had not previously heard – I just had to totter off and see for myself.
Nancy Spain herself seems to have been quite a colourful character; a journalist and broadcaster who died in a plane crash in 1964. I can’t help but be entertained by the fact that Nancy Spain’s brand of column writing for the Daily Express caused it to be sued twice by Evelyn Waugh.
I enjoyed Nancy Spain’s dry ironic wit, there is definitely less detection in the sleuthing of the marvellous Miriam Birdseye – and more character exploration and quite a lot of teasing of the reader. A little look at some other things about Nancy Spain reveals that I might have done better to start with the first Miriam Birdseye book Poison for Teacher. For in Not wanted on Voyage Miriam’s sometime partner is Natasha Nevkorina former ballet dancer, and now Lady Shelly married to Sir Timothy Shelly. Some web sites I consulted referred to Natasha – as Natasha DuViven and makes mention of a Johnny DuVivien who doesn’t appear in this novel – oh dear I need to go back to the start. I always assume with vintage crime fiction that it doesn’t matter what order you read them. In a sense it doesn’t matter – I only confused myself by going off and researching Nancy Spain while I was reading – note to self – don’t do that! Anyway – I did enjoy Not Wanted on Voyage – and am now ripe for more.
“Poor Douglass Comett’s anxiety came out, bit by bit, over tea. His story was unusual and exotic, and its dangerous detail sounded extremely odd in Douglass’s mouth, where butter (one might have thought) did not often melt. But it melted now as she sat sideways on Miriam’s Victorian sofa, munching muffins, anxiously wiping his chin with his handkerchief, gulping his tea and pouring out his story in short sharp bursts. He was like a child who has held back a guilty confidence long enough.”
As the novel opens Douglass Comett arrives at 44P Baker Street (yes Baker Street) to consult Miriam Birdseye, he finds Miriam with her friend Frederick Pyke – a truly terrible poet – and proceeds to tell them both his troubles. Comett is the English director of the Dutch and English Comet Line – that run pleasure cruises to the Mediterranean. Heroin is being smuggled into England and it appears that the Comet is being used to traffic the drugs. Douglass Comet arranges for Miriam and Pyke to travel aboard the Comet – allowing them to escape an English January, while solving the problem that Comett fears will threaten his business.
So Miriam and Pyke are soon aboard the Comet along with Douglass Comett – his awful wife Hero, and their strange daughter June, her nanny and a host of other improbably named characters. Natasha and her husband Sir Timothy are also on the passenger list, as are historical author Gordon Furbank and his wife Zitha a couple who have a seemingly odd connection to the Cometts. The story line surround the Furbanks and Cometts is particularly interesting in light of something I read on dear old Wikipedia today – I can’t say any more – spoilers!
Never fear, if you like your murders – there are plenty here. The first occurring before the ship has even sailed, at Waterloo as the boat train pulls in – Hero Cometts mother, bringing seasickness pills to her daughter, is pushed under the train. Oblivious to the death that has already occurred and the one that is soon to follow; Miriam and Pyke content themselves with reading Elizabeth Bowen and Colette and settling into their cabins. There is a good deal of nastiness to be dealt with, and Miriam has her sharp eye on everything – although as I said she doesn’t do much actual detecting – things just kind of come together. Darling Natasha, as she is not infrequently referred to – is very very lovely – we are told this rather a lot – and poor Pyke becomes rather infatuated and throws himself tragically on his bunk to write really terrible poetry to her. Natasha is not just a pretty face though, and is prone to the odd out of the blue eureka! moment which helps things along nicely.
“ ’Hello,’ said Miriam. ‘I can’t sleep.’
‘Neither can I,’ said the murderer.
‘It is our consciences,’ said Miriam, pleasantly, ‘that will not let us sleep. They are never at rest. And even if we were to sleep we should dream. They would create for us that other world where personal images are thrown distorted, poor darlings, until we cannot even recognise our dearest friends. Lovely lovely sex, for example. Of which I am so fond. In one of my dreams recently sex appeared in a straw hat’
‘I see you read Freud,’ said the murderer sourly. “
There is something slightly irreverent and definitely un-orthodox about this crime story considering its time. Nancy Spain’s writing is full of humour and there are some nicely eccentric characters, whose voices are utterly bonkers and therefore strangely real. Nancy Spain must have had a good ear for the peculiar idioms of speech of the people she knew who included Noel Coward; some of the dialogue is really daft. I found Miriam and Natasha to be characters I can’t help but be entertained by and in my head at least, Miriam Birdseye is a dead ringer for Nancy Spain herself.