Back in 2014, I made the acquaintance of Nancy Spain who at the time seemed to be something of a forgotten author. Popular in the 1950s and 1960s, when she was a regular figure appearing on TV and radio, her writings seemed to have fallen out of fashion. However, I picked up some second hand copies of her books after hearing about her from Simon at Stuck in a Book; and I had great fun with her mystery novel “Poison for Teacher“. As well as this, I have “Not Wanted on Voyage” in an old green Penguin Crime edition, and Ali has read and enjoyed that too.

However, at the end of 2020 it appeared that Spain was going to be making a bit of a comeback, as Virago have started to publish some of her books in shiny new editions; and I was fortunate enough to be treated to one of these from my lovely Virago Secret Santa (thank you!) The title is “Death Goes on Skis”, and it was the fourth of her novels, first published in 1949.

Fairly obviously from the title, the book is set not in Britain, but overseas, where Natasha Nevkorina, the Russian ballerina, and her husband Johnny DuVivien, have travelled for some skiing. In fact, a whole coterie of fascinating characters have journeyed to the wonderfully-named country of Schizo-Frenia to enjoy life on and off piste. These are centred round the handsome playboy, Barny Flaherte, who’s accompanied by his wife Regan, their two obnoxious children, the governess Rosalie and Barny’s cousins. Also in attendance is the famous actress Fanny Mayes, who is also Barny’s mistress, and is travelling with her dull husband Ted Sloper. Making up the party is Natasha’s fellow amateur sleuth, the famous review artist Miriam Birdseye, who has a pair of colourful young men called Roger and Morris in tow. Needless to say, there is high emotion at play here, with jealousies springing out all over the place, Barny playing the women off against each other, and lots of high dudgeon. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, when one of the party is found dead after falling out of a first floor bedroom window – but did they fall or were they pushed?

“Death” is, like “Poison”, a screamingly funny piece of writing; Spain’s humour is broad brush and laid on heavily, bordering on farce at times, and it’s great fun. Her writing is full of all sorts of wordplay and punning, and the story basically progresses in a series of funny scenes. If I’m truly honest, at a lot of times in the book, the actual murder plot seems secondary to Spain’s humour (which is always enjoyable, if not always politically correct). However, the story does build to a surpringly dark climax which I’m not sure I entirely expected, although looking back there were several things which signposted it.

Their eyes shone with health and the first stages of alcohol poisoning.

One of the strengths of the book is the supporting characters, and they’re quite brilliantly drawn, and very, very funny. Natasha and Johnny have the latter’s daughter Pamela with them, and she’s a straight-talking and entertaining teenager. Barny’s cousins are a wonderfully contrasting pair, too – Kathleen is weak, over-emotional and in love with her cousins, whereas Toddy is usually drunk, wears a succession of what would be called ‘mannish’ outfits and is constantly in search of money. Roger and Morris are a humorous double-act as well, camply following Miriam about and acting as a bit of a Greek chorus.

When Toddy Flaherte wandered downstairs at about four o’clock that afternoon she was wearing a smart Tyrolean youth’s jacket of black leather, fiercely trimmed with silver buttons. Kathleen had given her fifty French francs for a drink, and until she could see Barny that evening she was quite broke. However, she was quite defiant, too. At each bend on the staircase she did a little dance with her feet, like a clog dance, scraping on the coco-nut matting that is common to every hotel in Schizo-Frenia. It protects the polished floors from the ski-ing boots of the English visitors.

Intriguingly, “Death” was published just before “Poison”, which came out the same year; and in the latter, Natasha and Miriam seem much closer than in this book. In fact, Miriam doesn’t have that huge a role in it, with Natasha and Johnny taking on much of the action. I suspect it might be worth trying to read the books in order if that’s at all possible, as certainly the state of the DuVivien marriage at the end of this book and the start of “Poison” seems to be in an ongoing state of flux!

Nancy Spain as pictured on the back of my copy of “Poison for Teacher”

However, as I said about “Poison” and is again the case with this one, it’s the humour which is a delight; slapstick in places, laid on with a trowel and very, very funny. I did think that the book could possibly have done with a little judicious editing, as there were times when I wanted the plot to move on a tad more quickly. I remember “Poison” as being reasonably fast paced, and “Death” occasionally got lost in its humorous set pieces. But that’s a minor quibble really, and my second read of Nancy Spain confirmed that she was a very funny woman and it’s such a shame she died so young.

I believe Virago plan to reissue more of Nancy Spain’s novels, which is wonderful news because she really has been unjustly neglected. This new edition has an introduction by Sandi Toksvig, for whom Spain was an inspiration, living her life as a lesbian on her terms when it was still not acceptable to do so. I’m very happy to see Spain becoming more well-known and if you want a wonderful mash-up of humour and detecting, you can’t really go wrong with her books! 😀