(I thought long and hard about posting this review, as the book title is perhaps a little inappropriate at the moment, bearing in mind all the awful news stories that are about. However, the book is such fantasy, so far away from reality, that I don’t think it can be seen as having any relevance to current events – so here goes….)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book is a really bad influence! He’s constantly coming across obscure writers and pointing his readers in their direction – the most recent being Nancy Spain, a once prominent personality who seems alas to languish in obscurity nowadays. Needless to say, I don’t need much prompting to go off on a book search, and a couple of Nancy’s works have made their way to my shelves!

Wikipedia summarises her thus: Nancy Brooker Spain (13 September 1917 – 21 March 1964) was a prominent English broadcaster and journalist. She was a columnist for the Daily Express, She magazine and the News of the World in the 1950s and 1960s. She also appeared on many radio broadcasts, particularly on Woman’s Hour and My Word!, and later as a panellist on the television programmes What’s My Line? and Juke Box Jury. Spain died in a plane crash near Aintree racecourse while travelling to commentate on the 1964 Grand National.

It was the thought of her crime thrillers that attracted me most, as I’m a sucker for vintage crime, and the first one to arrive was this lovely volume:

spain front

It’s an old, battered Book Club edition – so therefore, of course, very appealing in my eyes! It’s the Hutchinson Universal Book Club, to be precise, one I’ve not come across before – and I had to scan the wonderful back cover, featuring a great picture of Nancy by Angus McBean:

spain reverse

Anyway, on to the contents. Spain’s crime series seems to feature regular characters and detectives (Johnny DuVivien and Miriam Birdseye seem to be the main ones, but Johnny’s wife Natasha, a Russian ex-ballerina, also features strongly in “Poison” – in fact, she was possibly my favourite character!). The book opens with Johnny and Natasha arguing about music – obviously as he’s an Australian wrestler and she a Russian ballerina, Stravinsky is only going to appeal to one of them! Natasha packs a case and leaves, going to stay with her friend Miriam Birdseye, whose detective agency, Birdseye et Cie, is not doing too well. Fortunately, a letter arrives from Miss Liscoomb, the head of Radcliff Hall school in Sussex, where some unpleasant events have been taking place….

The ladies decamp to Brunton-on-Sea, and pose as a couple of temporary teachers while investigating – and in fact, not long after their arrival, the lights go out during a meal and the hot chocolate urn taps are turned on, resulting in one child being par-boiled (yes, really!)

Miriam and Natasha are roped into the school play, “Quality Street”, and gradually get to know the staff at the school, and the locals involved. Old friends (presumably from previous books) turn up, like the improbably named and very camp Roger Partick-Thistle. And then finally, a murder takes place. Can Miriam and Natasha solve the crime before anyone else gets hurt? And will Johnny sulk all through the book or try to track down his missing wife?

As you might have sensed, there’s an awful lot of tongue-in-cheek in “Poison” – in fact, I found myself laughing like a drain at a lot of points during the book. The names along are enough to set you off: Gwylan Fork-Thomas, the chemistry mistress; Dr. Lariat, the local medic and heart-throb; Mrs. Buttick, his housekeeper; Mrs. Grossbody, the matron, Charity Puke, the Classics mistress and her hideous, controlling mother Mrs. Puke; and so on! And Spain’s writing is very witty:

“They drove briskly into Brunton-on-Sea, sitting upright in Roger’s Austin Seven, petrol for which was allowed for educational purposes. They were unalarmed by anything on the wet dark drive except a leaf that blew against the wind-screen and an apparition that fled before them howling like a wolf. It wore a black slouched hat and a loose dark cloak, and was obviously Miss Lesarum saying good night to her Girl Guide patrol.”

If you like your humour delivered drily and in many cases in punchline sentences, then Spain is the writer for you! There is a sense almost of caricature at times, with the lady teachers falling into the stereotypes you’d expect from a girls’ school, with their passions for each other, and also their admirers amongst the girls (it’s not called Radcliff Hall for nothing!). The pupils themselves are hideous, particularly Julia Bracewood-Smith (daughter of the local celebrity crime novelist) and the dreaded, bullying Gwen Soames, who’s worthy of St. Trinians! Spain has great fun sending up the traditional boarding school tale, the high point of which might be the game of Bally Netball, a violent ball game particular to the school which is considerably dangerous:

“The game of Bally Netball raged on unchecked. The little girls were inspired by such terror of their head mistress (now playing like a lambent flame along the ground) that they dared not turn their heads…. By the time that Natasha and Roger had left the Bally Netball game no-one had been killed…” – although quite a number of children do get injured!!

The characters are all larger than life but great fun, particularly Natasha, who does most of the detecting in “Poison” and has a very individual way of speaking:

“And she is telling you that you are going mad, I suppose?” said Natasha.
“Yes,” said Miss Lipscoomb, and sank into a chair. She put her head in her hands. “I think it is true,” she said. “But how did you know?”
“That’s an old one,” said Miriam briskly. “I always used to tell my first husband he was going mad,” she said. “In the end he did,” she added triumphantly.

What’s also noticeable about Spain’s writing is the complete lack of political correctness! Some characters are described as Jews or Jewesses, one of Johnny’s employees addresses him as “Bawss”, Roger Partick-Thistle is portrayed as a screaming queen, and there are many hints at lesbian lifestyles, either overtly (in the case of Gladys Puke’s passion for Gwylan) or more obliquely (the relationship between Miss Lipscoomb and her erstwhile partner at the school, Miss bbirch). There’s also a description of a special school’s outing to the seaside that I won’t repeat here… However, in some ways this is quite refreshing, in that Spain was writing from the margins herself. She was a lesbian herself, and lived with Joan Werner Laurie (the founder of She magazine) for a large part of her life; nevertheless, she had to feign a relationship with TV personality of the day, Gilbert Harding, to satisfy the publicity hounds – which is quite bizarre. So I can put these things in context and allow for them, because Spain was quite happy to lampoon anyone, including herself!

“Black Market Bob was a very smart taxi-driver indeed. He was so smart that he looked like one of Hitler’s S.S. Guards. He made cleanliness appear positively sinister. … Black Market Bob was certainly good-looking in a curious Germanic way. He only looked his best when wearing a peaked cap.”

If this all sounds a bit flippant, there *is* a murder mystery in there, and it’s quite absorbing though if I’m honest, a little straightforward. There are a couple of murders, a number of mysteries, some buried secrets and a lot of high emotion! We’re certainly not up to Christie or Sayers standard here, but I don’t expect Spain was intending her book to be that in-depth. Instead, I imagine she was trying to provide an entertainment, and “Poison” certainly does that! I really enjoyed my read of Nancy Spain – and fortunately there’s another volume of hers waiting in the wings!