Monday, July 11, 2016

Hold the Oysters! Part 2 R in the Month (1950), by Nancy Spain

In my long (18,000 words) essay Was Corinne's Murder Clued? The Detection Club and Fair Play (2011), I note how British Fifties media personality and oft-termed "iconic lesbian" Nancy Spain (1917-1964) was turned down for membership in the UK's Detection Club in 1953, evidently on the ground that the one detective novel by her that anyone in the Club, in considering the question of her admission, seems to have looked at--possibly her most recent one,The Kat Strikes; Spain had published nine of her ten detective novels by this time--was deemed, while amusing, to be sure, to be lacking in, well, detection.

At this time members of the Detection Club, though anxious after the war to infuse new blood into their organization, still sought to uphold the requirement that prospective members of the club actually have written detective novels with detection.  (This requirement was dropped not so many years later, however.)

As I mentioned in my previous post, before reading Spain's R in the Month (1950) I had earlier read two Spain detective novels, Death Before Wicket and Poison for Teacher, which struck me as amusing but regrettably rather busts on the detection front. (They were originally reviewed by me as MysteryFile, then, in a revised piece, on my own blog, here.)

Yet having read Spain's R in the Month (1950), which the author dedicated to Margery Allingham, I now think it was a bit lax on the part of Detection Club members to have looked, apparently, at only one book by Spain in making their judgment concerning her suitability for membership in the Club.  Assuming, that is, that that one book wasn't R in the Month.

Nancy Spain

R is a rich manners mystery, done rather in the style of Margery Allingham, whom Spain was playing up to socially at the time (more on this below), and it has a murder plot that actually flows pretty well, I think.  In contrast I can't even recall off the cuff much of anything about the plots of Spain's Wicket and Teacher, which I read only a few years ago but which even at the time didn't make all that much sense to me, especially Teacher, Spain's best-known novel today, probably because it was reprinted by Virago Press.

death beside the seaside

R takes place at the resort town of Brunton-on-Sea, Sussex (I assume real-life Brighton, with which Spain was familiar from having attended Roedean School between 1931 and 1935), at a deplorable guest house called the Oranmore Private Hotel.  The Oranmore is run by Tony and Celia Robinson, who bought the place while floating on the fluffy but insubstantial cloud of charming Tony's unmerited optimism.  The Oranmore is now floundering, but keeping it afloat, for the moment, is its premier paying guest, wealthy Mrs. Eithne Bognor, who resides there with her son, Major Bognor, late of the British army.

Hermione Gingold
Additional characters in the novel are the Oranmore's masculine cook, Connie Watson, who prefers to be called "chef" and tends to mimic Humphrey Bogart during moments of stress; Connie's kitchen maid, "Tommy"; and Mrs. Ada Greeb, Celia's domineering widowed mother, who always felt her daughter should never have married that handsome ne're-do-well Tony; not to mention a gallery of assorted townspeople, servants and Bognor relations, to a man and woman sharply and brightly characterized by the author.

Also on hand is the actress and amateur sleuth Miriam Birdseye, in her fourth outing in a Spain novel. (She appeared in two later novels as well.)

Spain based Miss Birdseye on the wonderful British actress Hermione Gingold (1897-1987).  She is a memorable character in R, an archly formidable presence who reminded me rather of Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley.

Miss Birdseye often has an attendant male towed along for the sleuthing ride, and in this one it's Frederick Pyke, a poet who is writing--or trying to write--a play for her.  Inspector Harold Tomkins, of the Sussex CID, who made his first appearance in Poison for Teacher, which also was set in Brunton-on-Sea, is rather besotted with Miss Birdseye as well.  Oh, and the nosy actress is actually visiting the Oranmore to break an undesirable engagement with Major Bognor.  So Miss Birdseye already has a lot to deal with, but she always manages to find time for a more than a spot of snooping.

Poison is the theme of the Tuesday Club and there is quite a lot of poisoning going on in R.  Oysters prove to be dangerous indeed in this novel, which is divided into five books, headed by epigraphs from Lewis Carroll's poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter" (where of course it's the oysters who are endangered).  The final "book" is a nicely turned trial, which reminded me a bit of Allingham's Albert Campion detective novel Flowers for the Judge.

It's all carried off with panache by Spain in this delicious and drolly deadly detective novel, named by crime writer Elly Griffiths as one of the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on her. (The other two are The Moonstone and The Daughter of Time, so R is in distinguished literary company.)

If Margery Allingham read this novel Spain dedicated to her it apparently didn't help get Spain in the Detection Club, however.  But Spain may have had other issues with Allingham by this time.  Though a lesbian (the same year R was published, Spain met the woman who became her life partner, magazine editor Joan "Jonnie" Werner Laurie; both women would tragically die in a plane crash in 1964), in 1952 Spain gave birth to a child, Tom, who had been fathered by Philip Youngman Carter, Margery Allingham's husband

Joan Wenrer Laurie
In an essay in a book I edited, Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene (2014), Allingham's biographer, Julia Jones, has speculated about whether Allingham might possibly have known about all this, and written this knowledge into her novel The China Governess, which concerns question of identity and legitimacy.

It's an interesting hypothesis.  At the time, however, Tom was raised as the birth son of Spain's partner Jonnie Werner Laurie, who already had a birth son of her own, from an earlier marriage.Both boys were raised by Nancy and Jonnie, until the women's plane crash deaths in 1964.

The pair lived a life together as a lesbian couple that was a sort of open secret, one recently chronicled in a chapter of Rachel Cooke's fine book on mid-century British career women, Her Brilliant Career (2014).

For more on Tom Carter, as he was known as an adult, after he learned all the details of his parentage, see the afterword to Julia Jones' excellent biography of Margery Allingham, and this interesting page by Jones here.

One of the preoccupations in Nancy Spain's detective novels is young children, whom Nancy Spain tends to treat like monstrous hellions. (See, for example, the Robinsons's squalling toddlers April and May in R in the Month.) Spain's evolving (and softening) attitude toward children is addressed in an essay by Bruce Shaw in Murder in the Closet, the forthcoming book on LGBT themes in and writers of pre-Stonewall crime fiction which I edited.  I found it a fascinating topic, like Spain's life in general.  And, as for R in the Month, it's a pearl of a mystery.


  1. Replies
    1. Dean, I added some more detail above, plus another link to Julia Jones. Tom Carter, as he was known as an adult after he found out about his full parentage, died a few years ago. Julia Jones, who knew him and was a friend, has explained a lot about what was obviously a confusing and muddled situation.

      Spain's own situation is fascinating, because it shows how this adventurous, comparatively "out" person engaged in deceptions in the Fifties in order to avoid the kind of scandal that would have been incurred by a woman in the Fifties.

    2. Incidentally, Nancy was always Tom's favorite parent, though he was told Jonnie was his birth mother. Her evolving attitude toward children is a subject addressed in Bruce Shaw's essay.

  2. I loved both Julia Jones' Allingham biog, and the Rachel Cooke book. I read 2 of Spain's books, and was under-impressed - this one sounds much better.

    1. Moira, which two were they? I thought this one was much better than the two earlier ones I read: more manners, less madcappery!