I have finally got around to trying this author. Not sure why it has taken this long, as she has been on my radar for a while, yet somehow she managed to keep falling off my radar. One of the first things I enjoyed learning, when opening the book, was that Nancy Spain was born in Newcastle. Never realised she was a Geordie! Interestingly she was also the great-niece of Mrs Beeton. Sandi Toksvig, who writes the introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition of this book, includes this surprising additional revelation about Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management:
‘Although it was an encyclopaedic presentation of all you needed to know about running the home, Isabella Beeton was hardly the bossy matron in the kitchen that the book suggested; in fact she wrote it aged just twenty-one, when she can hardly have had the necessary experience. Isabella probably knew more about horses, having been a racing correspondent for Sporting Life. The truth is that she and her husband Sam saw a gap in the book market. So, rather than being the distillation of years of experience, Mrs Beeton’s book was a shrew marketing ploy.’
Perhaps everyone else knew this already? It’s a shame Isabella Beeton died so young, aged only 28.
Toksvig’s introduction centres on Spain’s personality and her love of celebrity, as well as her own multimedia celebrity career. Further interesting nuggets of information from this introduction include that Spain’s amateur sleuth Miriam Birdseye, was based on her real-life friend, actress Hermione Gingold and that Nancy Spain died in a plane crash, aged just 47, when she was on her way to cover the Grand National in 1964.
R in the Month is dedicated as follows: ‘Margery Allingham’s book with love’. I was curious as to why Allingham got this book dedicated to her. Were they good friends or is there a link between Allingham and the content of the story? If anyone knows do share below!
The novel is divided into 5 books and each book seems to have a title linked to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, in particular the narrative poem involving the oysters and the walrus. I presume this is a tie-in for the first murder which occurs after an oyster eating birthday party. I also felt these allusions were an indicator of the light-hearted tone of the mystery overall. In addition, the beginning of the novel includes a character list, which felt like quite a traditional mystery fiction element to include given that the book was published in 1950. However, I would be wary of assuming that the story itself is an overly traditional mystery. Detective Inspector Tomkins, in this tale, for example, is uncomplimentary of mystery writers, saying to another character, a poet:
“You writers are all alike.” Tomkins sounded very cross about it. “Life’s a nice, smooth, intellectual problem to you. One, two, three, four, maybe five suspects – at the most six. Bob’s your uncle. Then who dun it? That’s what your sort think life’s like. I tell you, the police ‘ave got to gossip. To find anything out at all. we can’t be strong an’ silent – like in the detective stories.”
Moreover, unfortunately, the ending to Spain’s book, clearly shows a disregard for traditional detective fiction and commits the grave sin of having a character at the 11th hour reveal that they saw the killer in the act of poisoning the food. The fact this character waited until the close of the murder trial, with the wrong person in the docks, is not annoying at all… However, I get ahead of myself.
‘The oyster party had the kiss of death upon it – even though there were two ‘R’s in the month. Miriam Birdseye – famed revue star and sleuth – could have told you that from the start. She isn’t a bit surprised to learn that her fiancé’s mother died in the night. But who at the seedy Sussex hotel would have poisoned the bivalves? Could it be the hotel proprietor – a handsome, drunken bankrupt? His put-upon wife? Miriam’s impressively moustachioed fiancé? Or the menacing, unsavoury chef? Can Miriam track down the killer before anyone else is murdered by mollusc?’
Spain opens her novel with a frontispiece (quite a formal literary term, I felt) with Mr Justice Mayhem (an ironic name for a judge) talking to a jury, summing up at the close of a trial for a murder which took place the previous February. I found this to be an intriguing beginning and I enjoyed the interludes the judge provides later in the narrative. I think these helped to shape reader theories about what might be going on.
The story is predominantly at the seaside town of Brunton-on-Sea and I think the author establishes this location very well, without going into too much detail as to how the various hotels and guest houses were developed from villas which used to belong to retired colonels and colonials. We get some humour in this scene setting such as with the endless auctions being held to get rid of the unwanted colonial bric-a-brac these villas originally housed.
The human milieu is also built up well beginning with Tony Robinson who is the owner of the Ornamore Hotel and who has exceeded his overdraft limit. The bank has given him until Monday to pay and the bank is not the only place where Tony’s business owes a lot of money. When money goes missing later in the story, it is hard to not look at Robinson with suspicion. Although not a pleasant character, Tony is a well-crafted one as he is the perfect sponger. He regularly treats people to cocktails in nearby hostelries, yet more often than not he procures those drinks using money he has “borrowed” off the people he is buying the drinks for. Somehow though, as we see live in action, Tony manages to ‘delude’ his lenders into ‘truly believe[ing] that Tony had bought [… them] a drink.’ Nevertheless, given how much he annoys and upsets others, it is surprising that he is not bumped off at the end of chapter 1 – that is Mrs Bognor’s fate. The beginning of the book showcases well Spain’s ability to write smooth and polished prose, with dialogue that flows and the little social and character details she includes also add to her narrative.
Despite Miriam Birdseye being billed as the central amateur sleuth, it is Freddie Pyke who first sees the body after the chambermaid has screamed upon opening Mrs Bognor’s room and it is he who takes charge, calling the doctor in and locking the door. Furthermore, although Pyke informs her of the discovery, Miriam’s entry point into the case is not a smooth one, as Pyke who is supposed to be her friend/literary collaborator, is resistant to her getting involved:
“W-we are w-waiting for the police,” said Pyke coldly. “You w-wouldn’t understand.”
He went on looking out of the window.
Miriam was extremely angry. Few people, she said, excitedly, in the last few years had had more opportunity of acquiring an understanding of police procedure. Particularly in cases of violent death. she began a rapid resume (that might have been entitled Murders I Have Been Mixed Up In), making her points by waving Pyke’s comb. Pyke went on suffering.
“L-look, dear,” said Pyke eventually, “I’m v-very fond of you. As an actress. B-but to be f-frank, I dislike amateur d-detectives. The law, after all, was once my business. Th-they b-bore me s-stiff in fiction. In life they are merely sordid. P-pray let the police attend to their own business and continue to b-be yourself. Whatever you have done in the past, Miriam, I implore you to leave this business to th-those competent –”
Miriam’s large pale-blue eyes acquired a vague, cynical expression.
“You’re jealous,” she said briefly.
“L-leave b-blood and thunder to those whom it becomes,” said Pyke.
“But there’s no blood and you’re stealing my thunder,” said Miriam.
Pyke comes across as rather Victorian and as a stick-in-the-mud and instead of being a sleuthing duo, with Pyke as a sidekick, the narrative sees the two of them operating independently.
Subsequent to this scene we see a form of sleuthing rivalry and jealousy formulate between the two, not least because Miriam’s detecting credentials receive a boost from Detective Inspector Tomkins, who knows her from a previous case. Tomkins goes to view the body with Miriam rather than Pyke, yet an opportunistic meeting with one of the victim’s siblings gives Pyke the chance to get one up on the police and Miriam. Arguably this boomerangs slightly, which I enjoyed.
Two further deaths complicate the case in an interesting fashion, as you wonder how many killers are at work and whether each death was an intentional one or not. Consequently, there are lots of different strands to the investigation and also pockets of characters. I would suggest that there is no one person who acts as lead sleuth from a narrative point of view, nor is there one pair working together either. The combinations of sleuthing characters vary and often they work alone, which sometimes results in a duplication of information. Some scenes just feature some of the suspects talking among themselves and I found the narrative to have a collage feel to it.
Miriam is not the centre stage character I expected her to be, nor is she the most clued-up character involved in the case, to the extent that her contributions to the investigation only manage to get the wrong person committed for trial and she has no involvement in the reversal of this situation. Unfortunately, her sleuthing role ultimately felt quite slight, and it did feel like you could remove her character from the book entirely. However, I think this is partially due to the strength of characterisation found elsewhere in the book. In some ways other characters were just more interesting.
Throughout most of the book I thought the writer was exceptionally fair in showing the reader clues and evidence and that is why I was perhaps so annoyed by the denouement, which relies on a critical eyewitness who kept silent right up until the last minute. This is not a satisfying way to end a mystery and it felt unnecessary given the effort Spain had gone to earlier in the novel to include clues and pertinent information. Maybe she didn’t know how to prove the guilt of her killer? Or just ran out of steam? The trial just before the end also lacked the sparkle the opening of the story held and instead dragged a lot for me.
I would be interested to know which Nancy Spain mysteries other readers have read and enjoyed. Have I just picked one with a bit of a dud ending? Is there one where Miriam really gets her teeth into some amateur sleuthing?
The answer to the mystery is in the Margery Allingham bio by Julia Jones – excellent book. I won’t spoiler it for you! I’m afraid Spain’s detective stories mainly leave me cold, tho there’s one set in a provincial panto which raised more than one laugh.
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oooh how intriguing!
I’ve read a couple of Spain books so far, and interestingly Miriam didn’t come as much to the fore in one as I expected. I enjoyed her books, but I don’t think they’re necessarily ‘proper’ detective fiction. And I did find one of the two overlong to the point it was getting a bit tedious and I was wishing for an editor. I think she could be very funny but I don’t honestly feel to need to read another right now…
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I wonder if Spain had written non-mystery novels, in the Wodehouse vein, whether she might have got on better?
Maybe – the mystery element adds a little to the reading experience, it’s more that I think she needs editing, and also the endless jokes can become a little wearing…
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ooh interesting, so you think a tighter novel with a bit more plotting?
Definitely! The first one I read, “Poison for Teacher”, was shorter and although the plotting was not completely brilliant, it was very funny and enjoyable. The second, “Death Goes on Skis”, was far too long and digressive, and had too many side plots. I got frustrated with it. So had she focused on plot more and been edited somewhat, I think she would definitely have been better.
I wasn’t too impressed with her Death Goes On Skis. https://piningforthewest.co.uk/2022/12/05/death-goes-on-skis-by-nancy-spain/
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Thank you for the link, it seems on FB and on here that Spain is not an overly popular author.
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