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With thanks to Virago for the review copy

I read my first Nancy Spain book – Not Wanted on Voyage six years ago – (rather shocked when I looked it up, I thought it might be two or three) and so was delighted to receive this new edition from Virago of Death Goes on Skis. There is another Nancy Spain novel due for reissue in the spring.

Nancy Spain was quite a character, something of a household name in the 1950s and 60s, a writer and broadcaster she made regular appearances on TV shows like Juke Box Jury which I may have heard of but am too young to have ever seen.  In her introduction to this edition Sandi Toksvig talks about what a fan she has always been of Spain’s and how for her, Nancy Spain paved the way for other gay women to make their way in multimedia – before that was even a thing.

Nancy Spain is not a conventional storyteller – so her mystery novels do not really follow the usual conventions either. Death Goes on Skis is farcical and funny, her characters bright, witty and devastatingly sharp. The detection part of this novel (and the only other one I have read) kind of takes a back seat – as Spain’s society types try to figure what is going on while not taking too much of a break from their usual pursuits, which so often seem to include, gossip, flirting, gambling, and the consumption of champagne and in this novel a bit of skiing.

I think it would be fair to assume that what was considered funny in 1949 may not always be considered entirely appropriate in 2020. So, the one slightly odd note for me throughout the novel was the name of the fictional country Spain chose as her setting– Schizo-Frenia. Maybe not the most offensive thing I have read but it just jars a little.  

Miriam Birdseye with her usual little troupe of admirers is off to the slopes – though Miriam seems more interested in gossip and champagne than skiing. Fellow ski resort guests include Miriam’s fellow amateur sleuth Natasha Nevkorina with her husband Johnny DuVivien and stepdaughter Pamela. Also, of the party are the wealthy Flahertés: handsome playboy Barny, his wife Regan and their two rather horrible children their governess, Roasalie and Toddy and Kathleen, Barney’s cousins. Barny’s mistress Fanny Mayes (AKA Lady Sloper) and her husband are also of the party. We first meet these characters as they travel to the ski resort by train. Miriam and her companions Roger and Morris arrive later. So, the scene is set – as they say.

“At Unteralp Miriam Birdseye cantered from the near funicular to the funicular. She ran, an easy first of her little school of chums. They were none of them athletes.

She looked very spectacular and cheerful, with her lovely long legs moving like a race-horse. Her ridiculous hat (something like a coal-black church steeple) threw a fantastic shadow across the platform.

The sun had now come out and everything seemed altogether gayer. Miriam often had this effect on the weather.

Fanny Mayes was not pleased.”

Soon a death occurs, which some people assume is suicide but is soon shown not to be. This brightens things up considerably for Natasha who was rather worried about being bored. She is soon getting stuck right into trying to figure it all out – consulting with Miriam every now and again, who to my mind never seems to do very much at all.

Barney has taken to skiing in a big way and his technique has been so praised that he decides that despite everything else that is going on he will enter the skiing championships which are being held on the slopes above the hotel. Natasha has taken a bit of a shine to Barney as has the governess who writes letters to her old friend all about her ‘Mr Rochester’. Natasha has begun to regret her marriage to Johnny and decides she will have to leave him.

When a second death occurs, it does begin to look as if things are all pointing in the direction of one person. However, Miriam and Natasha (with Johnny’s help) are on the case – well sort of – and gradually they begin to unearth some of what has been going on. However, with the local authorities keen to tidy things up quickly and neatly will the culprit ever be brought to book?

“It was indeed snowing. The wind, whirling up the valley from Kesicken, or down from Mönchegg, was unable to make up its mind which way it was prevailing. Clouds of snow blew off the pile of firewood, like spray. Little drifts formed behind chairs on the wooden duckboard and shifted backwards gradually. The outlines of everything outside the hotel slowly became muffled.

Johnny could see Regan Flaherté’s body ahead of him, outside the front door. It lay curiously twisted, already half covered with snow. The wind blew in his face and soaked him.”

Nancy Spain’s characters are not all very likeable – and are not supposed to be – they are all a type and she writes this type well. Armchair detectives may find this frustrating as a mystery novel – there are few clues to follow and as I said all that seems to take something of a back seat. Miriam Birdseye the supposedly brilliant society sleuth does not do very much – though she has a sharp eye which little escapes. All in all, this is great, witty escapism, a little dated in places perhaps but I am always happy to read things in the context of the times anyway. I definitely want to read more of these, so it is exciting that Virago have begun to re-issue them.

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not wanted on voyage

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.

nancy spain

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