The writer, journalist and broadcaster, Nancy Spain, published several comic detective stories between 1945 and 1952, of which this is the fourth. It features her two recurring, (extremely) amateur detectives, Natasha Nevkorina, a Russian ex-ballet dancer, and Miriam Birdseye, a revue artist soon to star in a show called Absolutely the End. Natasha is lovely and graceful and, although she speaks charmingly broken English, there are hints throughout the novels that her White Russian background is mythical. She has a husband, Johnny, and a stepdaughter, Pamela. Miriam, apparently based on Hermione Gingold to whom this book is dedicated, is a ‘genius’ and is generally attended by a number of camp young men.
The novel begins with the main characters embarking on a railway journey to the Central European country of Schizo-Frenia, famous for its winter sports. We are introduced to the Flaherte family, whose wealth comes from a scent importing business. There is Barney, his wife Regan, their two unappealing children, Joyce and Margie, and Rosalie Leamington, the governess. Also travelling are two cousins of Barney’s, one of whom is in love with him, and his mistress Fanny Mayes and her husband.
So there are plenty of tensions to give rise to the ‘drama’ which Natasha longs for and these surface once the travellers are settled in their alpine hotel. The underlying cause is Barney who is a combination of devastating attractiveness and complete irresponsibility. It is soon established that he detests his children and, while bored of his marriage, he uses it to evade demands from other women. Then people start to die: Regan is pushed out of her bedroom window and Fanny is given an overdose of sleeping tablets. Regan’s murderer confesses. The identity of Fanny’s killer is worked out by Natasha, Johnny and Miriam but the detection is minimal and takes second place to the humour.
In fact this is best thought of as a camp, theatrical farce in which nothing is to be taken seriously. The exuberant high spirits can be rather wearing, notably some of the names. In a similar vein to Schizo-Frenia, we have the Flaherte scents, which are called Whew!, Pong! and Nine Times Too Far; there is also a young man called Roger Partick-Thistle.
But there is plenty to enjoy. The characters are stereotypical but vivid owing to Spain’s gift for description which sometimes verges on the grotesque. Here are Barney and Regan in their compartment; Barney is lying on the bunk, Regan, naturally, is doing all the work.
‘Even in his shirt sleeves, and a little lemon coloured slip over, Barney Flaherte looked romantic. He considered it a great burden…….Regan’s restless hands plucked and twitched at the straps of the luggage, at Barney’s and her sponge bags, at the odd cake of soap as she dropped it, at her hair and her neck. She wasn’t really a clumsy woman, but she always gave an appearance of busy-ness. Things nearly all fell on the floor around her.’
Spain often uses animal imagery to describe people. Natasha is always cat-like and at one point Barney, strongly attracted to her, stares at her ‘like a drugged moth’. Miriam, who has lovely long legs, moves ‘like a racehorse’ while Fanny, in full pursuit of Barney after Regan’s death, is said to look like a ‘golden fox’.
Children are usually unattractive and dislikeable in Spain’s novels and Joyce and Margie are no exception. Joyce wears a dental plate and sucks at it constantly in an attempt to dislodge it.
‘This gave her the unhealthy look of a young rabbit. Joyce was a fast worker on a plate and it usually only took her six hours to loosen one. It would spring, twanging furiously, from her mouth and then her sister Margie would run, sneaking, to the nearest authority.’
Later she is working hard at it and makes ‘distressing noises like a dredger at low tide’.
The whole novel is pervaded by an enjoyably dry wit. In the dining car Margie knocks over a coffee-pot and Joyce is scalded. They both scream.
‘…Regan sprang across the carriage like a leopard, also screaming. ” Oh!” shouted Regan. ” These Frenians. Leaving the coffee unattended and leaving it boiling hot, too.
“So unlike England,” murmured Barney, “where it is always stone cold and never unguarded for a single instant.” ‘
Later in the story Natasha finds the governess’s writing case and reads the letter Rosalie is currently writing to her friend, Barbara. Seeing that it is ‘too good to waste’ she shows it to Miriam. The scene in which they pick over the contents of the letter does advance the plot a little but mainly it consists of rather bitchy fun. The letter is full of comments about people in the hotel, for example,
‘…that common little dancing teacher I told you of before who calls herself Russian. However, even poor little me from Droitwich can detect the North Country (Manchester?) accent behind all that pseudo broken English….’
Natasha, outraged, takes to muttering ‘Manchester indeed’ under her breath.
It is Miriam, described as ‘that old hen’ but also as a ‘genius’, who draws attention to the way the governess’s handwriting shows her instability,
‘ “All over the place. Sometimes one thing. Sometimes another. Do look. This letter might have been written with a fork.” ‘
There are lots of these camp italics especially in the conversations between Miriam and her two young men. The three of them are writing a musical version of Dracula and, although this has no relevance to the plot, it gives Spain the opportunity to have some fun writing lyrics such as these,
‘Oh! The Banquets in Bohemia
When the neighbours came to dine
And left with pernicious anaemia
I’m afraid the fault was mine.’
I think Spain’s novels are great fun but although Poison for Teacher was reprinted by Virago, the others are little known. The combination of humour and detection makes them difficult to place and anyone who approaches one of these novels expecting a conventional detective story is likely to be disappointed. It is much better to think of them as farces with a little detection.