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Saturday, 14 October 2017

Greedy Night by E.C. Bentley

A curio today, and one of the shortest texts I've reviewed so far. 'Greedy Night' (1936) is a short send-up of Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey, which appears in Parody Party, a fascinating volume edited by Leonard Russell and printed on what looks like watermarked writing paper by Hutchinson. Russell's 'introductory note' seeks to trivialise the book as the result of a weekend parlour game, and makes what I think is a wonderful point.

Responding to what he sees as the inevitable criticism that 'post-war novelists and people haven't sufficiently distinctive styles to admit of the better sort of parody', Russell points out that parody as a 'critical' tool serves to draw out these distinctive styles that are otherwise invisible in a contemporary world. It is, of course, heartbreaking to realise that people living in what we now call the interwar period described themselves as living 'post-war', and even more so to reflect that the unique and specific prose styles we so readily associate with those years are themselves inherently interwar.

It's a really interesting book, which is sometimes available online and cheap. And there are some great contributors including Rebecca West (parodying Charles Morgan), Rose McCaulay (Ernest Hemingway), Francis Iles (Hugh Walpole), Cyril Connolly (Aldous Huxley), John Betjeman (various Russians), and more.

Before going any further, a note of warning: this post contains spoilers. Personally, I find it difficult to discuss the joys of detective fiction without blabbing about the solutions, because often the story of the crime itself is essential to whatever contribution the text is making. In a similar vein, I don't mind a jot if I read a book already knowing whodunit. For me, it really isn't a case of 'animated algebra.' But I know that many people disagree, so accept this spoiler warning, the only intimation!

Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956), as if you needed to know, wrote Trent's Last Case (1913), a comic country house mystery that many have credited with spawning the British murder mystery as a distinct literary genre. He also invented the appropriately-named clerihew, a form of verse that haunts me from my student days, when our poetry tutor regaled us with an assortment of his own miniature masterpieces, from which I have yet to recover.

In this intriguing send-up of Dorothy L. Sayers, Bentley contributes a clerihew of his own which appears both in the text and ahead of it, accompanied by an image attributed to Bentley's famous son ('Nicolas Bentley drew the pictures', runs the credit line). I quote the clerihew in full because it reveals the story's charms and its limitations:
Lord Peter Wimsey 
May look a little flimsy, 
But he's simply sublime 
When nosing out a crime.
Charming because it's a clerihew by E. Clerihew himself, and it's clearly done in a spirit of great affection. Limited precisely because it's clearly done in a spirit of great affection, and, technically, it's not very good. These four lines alone tell us that there's not going to be any serrated criticism in the story -- and that's fine, of course. By its very nature, parody tells us something about contemporary reception and interpretation, even if this has been carefully controlled. I'm looking forward to reading the chapter parodying Hugh Walpole by Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley, aka A.B. Cox), who was not well known for softening the blows to his peers.

The opening scene has Bunter, Wimsey's faithful manservant, bringing his master breakfast in bed. When they discuss the unfortunate substances that His Lordship imbibed the previous night, and when Bunter casually lets drop that he has 'always taken an interest in the technical study of medieval calligraphy', it's clear that the character here is early Wimsey, not late Wimsey. This is the character Sayers described as a cross between 'Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster' and not the introspective married feminist that Wimsey was about to become at the time of the story's publication.

Another figure soon arrives on the scene: no less a personage than the Bishop of Glastonbury. A mysterious death has taken place, and His Grace invites His Lordship to investigate. The investigation takes Wimsey into an academic setting -- of course -- where everyone starts to talk about eating. There is a curious exchange between Wimsey and a young admirer called Mitchell:
Wimsey laughed. 'I must go. But do you and your friends really read the chronicles of my misspent life, then?' 
'Do we read them?' cried Mr Mitchell. 'I should say we do read them! We eat them!' 
'How jolly for you -- I mean for me -- that is to say, for her -- oh well, you know what I mean,' Wimsey said distractedly.
There is a nod here to the grand generic tradition of acknowledging the artificial status of the narrative; to Sherlock Holmes' many remarks about the people who read his adventures in The Strand. And the reference to 'her' takes it one step further.

The words 'we eat them' become relevant, too.  At the end of the book, Wimsey opens up the corpse's mouth -- God knows what the corpse is still doing there -- and removes several pages of a book. That book is Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers (with a handy footnote explaining the publisher, and just falling short of 'available in all good bookshops'). Wimsey explains:
Strong Poison! [...] Too strong indeed for poor Dermot. Such is the magic of that incisive, compelling style that even the very printed word is saturated with the essence of what it imparts. Others eat her works in a figurative sense only; Dermot began to eat this one in truth and in fact and so rushed, all unknowing, on his doom.
Do we detect here a josh in the direction of Sayers, who sought to elevate the intellectual standing of a detective novel and was about to give it up all together? Is the hyperbole mere sycophancy or is it a ruthless critique of what many people still consider pretension? What I really want to know is -- what did Dorothy L. Sayers think of this story? I'm sure she will have read it.

There are also some hints here -- as there are in Trent and much of the fiction it inspired -- of what we now call postmodernism. I think that we can expect a po-mo crime revival one of these days. But I'm rambling, and in discussions of this nature, that's not a good thing.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Mini Reviews #7

A Blunt Instrument (1938) by Georgette Heyer. Sorry -- I'm not convinced. After a few laugh out loud lines like 'His Lordship did not answer because he was dead', which I'm not convinced were supposed to be funny, I read this in a pretty bad mood. And for what it's worth, the solution is obvious literally from page 2. Heyer is being heralded as writing gentle social satires in her detective fiction, but I don't buy that. A Blunt Instrument exemplifies the conservatism and laziness that we like to think it critiques.

Dead Air (1986) by Mike Lupica. An investigative journalist takes to... investigating... when his ex-girlfriend is murdered. The case leads him into the glamorous and impossibly bitchy worlds of American television and evangelical Christianity. This is an amusing read. I first read it at the age of eleven and saw the twist coming a mile off.

Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) by Walter Mosley. The first case for hardboiled African American war veteran Easy Rawlins. Set in Los Angeles in 1948, this novel takes all the tropes and conventions that Hammett and Chandler coined and exposes their limits, developing Rawlins as a distinct voice in search of an identity. A compelling and brilliant read.

The Snowman (2007) by Jo Nesbo. The seventh case for Norwegian sleuth Harry Hole. Someone is building snowmen, sinisterly unexplained and facing towards houses from which people disappear. And soon bodies -- or, rather, bits of bodies -- turn up. This is a fast-paced and atmospheric novel that takes us all over Oslo and gets us fully invested in the unfortunately-named hero.

Sleep No More (2017) by PD James. A beautiful new collection of 6 short stories by the late crime queen. It's easy to scoff at the publishers for bringing these out 6 at a time, instead of in one go, and always in time for Christmas. But the books are so pretty one can almost forgive them. James was not a great short story writer, and if you read anthologies, you have probably come across some or all of these before. Of note is 'The Murder of Santa Claus', narrated by a hack crime writer who explains that he is 'no H.R.F. Keating, no Dick Francis, not even a P.D. James.' Poor thing. That story is a bit of a satire on golden age crime as James perceived it, as divorced from the horrors and ethical overhauls of international war. I've never agreed with James's hot takes, but she expressed them in a relatively entertaining manner.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

A Toast to Tomorrow by Manning Coles

Today’s blog post is a bit of a departure, as I dip an amateur toe into the pool of spy fiction. Generally, I’m not a discerning critic: I can’t stand Ian Fleming, never got into Eric Ambler (but plan to have another go soon… watch this space), and unapologetically enjoy Agatha Christie’s contributions to the genre. This post covers one of the seminal texts in the emergence of the spy thriller as a distinctly British genre.

‘Manning Coles’ was a pseudonym for two writers, Adelaide (AKO) Manning (1891-1959) and Cyril Coles (1899-1965). They were friends and neighbours, and much of their writing is based on Cyril Coles’ experience in the British secret service. Their first novel featuring the British teacher and con man turned secret agent, Tommy Hambledon, was A Drink to Yesterday, published in 1940. Like Mr Coles, who pretended to be older than he was in order to enlist during the First World War, Hambledon is incredibly patriotic, believing that ‘if a country is worth living in, it’s worth fighting for’, and the Manning Coles novels are interesting because they were started as apparent propaganda during the Second World War, continuing apace — and slowly shedding their realism — into the 1960s, even after the first partner’s death.

A Toast to Tomorrow (1941) is the American title of the second Hambledon novel, which appeared in the UK as Pray Silence. As well as Hambledon and other recurring characters, it contains the then contemporary, and very real, figures of Adolf Hitler among several high-profile fascists. As with most of the books on this blog, I read it because it had been sitting uncaressed on my bookshelf for years. And let's be honest: just looking at the cover, it's clearly about the rise of fascism, which is terrifyingly relevant in this day and age.

The blurb of this one — my edition is the US first — makes it clear that Manning Coles is supposed to be ushering in a new era of spy fiction:
It is as different from the old spy stories as a Hitchcock movie is from silent pictures […] We would like you to forget any ideas you may have about spy stories and approach this as a novel with humor, three-dimensional characters, realistic motivation and breathtaking suspense.
What the blurb doesn’t mention is  the plot, so here it is. We encounter a man in a hospital in Germany in 1918 who has no idea who he is. The nurses name him Hans Lehmann and he starts to wonder what he could possibly have done to lead to such severe memory loss. He is worried that he might have been a murderer — the nurses say he is too nice for this to be true, but he reassures them that ‘some criminals are delightful people.’ They agree, though, that he has probably killed, because he is of military age.

In the next decade or so, Lehmann runs around Germany trying to find his family, and soon encounters a lonely old woman in a small town who is willing to act as a surrogate aunt, without bringing him any closer to his true identity. Scouring military bases, he somehow ends up meeting Hitler and Goebbels, is impressed by their rhetoric, and joins the fledgling Nazi party. He soon rises through the ranks and, in the 1930s, becomes the Nazi chief of police.

While Lehmann conscientiously tows the party line, his ‘aunt’ Ludmilla often puts Hitler and others gently in their places. For instance, when Hitler goes of on one about all the glorious things ‘the Party’ will do when it comes to power, Ludmilla interrupts ‘innocently’ with a question about how they’re going to afford it. Hitler’s attitude to Ludmilla also sews a seed of doubt into Lehmann’s hero-worship, because the leader comes across as a clear misogynist who can’t deviate from the script. After the first family meeting, Klaus and Ludmilla share the most appropriate response to the far-right during peacetime: they ‘looked at each other and burst out laughing.’

Anyway, the Nazis gain power and Lehmann assumes his senior role. Goebbels doesn’t like him, but Hitler does, so he stays in place. In his role, he sends a load of innocent people to concentration camps, and tries not to think about it.  Then he has a revelation: he’s got his memory back, just on the eve of the Second World War.

And guess what? He’s not German at all, but an English government spy called Tommy Hambledon! He later remembers that he was planning to ‘retire to the country and grow pigs’ but such plans are put on hold. Automatically, he switches allegiance and works to undermine the German government from within. This is very carefully explained as perfectly natural. Lehmann/Hambledon has not changed his character at all, the authors assure us, just his allegiance. He’s still intensely patriotic but now, because he’s discovered that he’s English, he’s on the right side. He proceeds to get a bunch of senior Nazis sent to concentration camps which is, I think, supposed to be jolly funny or something. A hundred pages or so are devoted to the various capers surrounding a government going to war, rounding up foreigners, while the head of police is himself a foreign spy.

I find it incredibly telling that Hambledon’s unthinking and violent patriotism is never problematised — the fact that the authors are perfectly happy to make it clear that his allegiance, like our implied judgment of it, is based purely on an accident of birth. When I say Hambledon doesn’t change his character, I mean it: his alarming attitude towards Jewish people remains in place, and the novel takes a weird kind of position of abhorring fascism whilst revelling in anti-semitism. Perhaps this is one of the pitfalls of a war retrospective written when the war was just getting started.

A Toast To Tomorrow is an interesting piece of amateur propaganda, and an intriguing spy thriller. I know that Manning and Coles have been credited with inventing the genre in post-war Britain with its focus on authentic psychological excitement over and above fast-paced codes, ciphers, and women. And I can see how this makes sense in relation to A Toast for Tomorrow. The novel’s flaws are plain for all to see — they’re of their time but not excusable, and the book survives on its own merits as a self-conscious study in allegiance and jingoism.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Death of a Philanderer by Laurence Meynell

Laurence Meynell (1899-1989) was a prolific writer from Wolverhampton, who fell out of vogue almost immediately upon his death. In his 60 year career, her wrote over 170 novels, including a successful crime series featuring the layabout private eye Hooky Hefferman, and a relatively well-received children's set about a cat called Smoky Joe. I've long meant to read a Meynell and, to my surprise, found that I already owned one of his books: Death of a Philanderer (1968). So I gave it a go.

Death of a Philanderer -- obviously not a children's book, but a 'Crime Club Recommendation', no less -- features no recurring character, as far as I know. The hero is a prolific popular novelist and media writer (like Meynell) called Anthony Langton, who has been commissioned to write a pamphlet for an exclusive girls' school. As soon as he accepts the commission and visits the school, things start going on.

For one thing, all the money collected at the school fundraiser goes missing. Then, an absolute blackguard from the headmistress's past rears his well-groomed head, and takes an unhealthy interest in the schoolgirls. The unsavoury Philip Carver has also managed to find a way to defraud our hero out of hard-earned royalties, and is generally a terrible human being. Eventually, he is murdered. But this is not a murder mystery; Carver does not die until quite near the end, and the bulk of the book follows his march towards execution.

This book felt very 1960s to me, so I would be interested to see if Meynell's managed to come across as equally of his time in, say, the 1920s and the 1980s. There are acerbically drawn characters like a baron who will only eat 'natural sea salt' from grubby paper and soda bread because it's 'the only form of bread not actively infected by cancer', and one character's hypochondriacal mother who resents her children because they don't get, or aspire to be, ill. Peppered among these are sexy ladies wandering around inexplicably naked, and some vaguely witty lines, like 'Cigarettes were invented by ham actors who haven't learnt what to do with their hands on stage.' It's blokey, but not in an alienating way.

Langton doesn't solve the mystery, although he does foil the murderer. By the end of the novel, we know who killed Carver, but very few of the characters do, and Langton is a suspect in the court of public opinion. His journalist friend assures him:
Don't worry [about media coverage. K]eep your mouth shut and say nowt and it will all be forgotten in ten days. President Mao will drop an H-bomb, or the pound will jump out of the financial window, or some sportsman will assassinate the General -- there'll be some little diversion, you see, and whether you murdered the chap under the bed or not won't matter any more.
That line felt kind of shockingly relevant today.

The narrative is straightforward, but it covers a range of emotional issues, from hero-worship to psychological abuse. Some sequences take place in a gay bar, which is always interesting. Based on the author's descriptions of the gay bar, I would guess that he wasn't writing from experience.

Sometimes Meynell lets us get inside the heads of other characters, including the murderer, the despicable Philip, and the headmistress. With her chapters, we see that, while Meynell's characters exhibit some problematic attitudes towards women (for which the narrative punishes them), Meynell himself does not seem to. He totally objectifies women in this book but not, as far as I can see, in an over-the-top or dehumanising way. He achieves that rare thing among male writers: creating a female narrator who is a person.

Tl;dr, Death of a Philanderer was fine. I doubt it's Meynell's magnum opus and I can't imagine he agonised over it. But that's fine, because no one's going to agonise over reading it. It's not a whodunit and it's not any kind of thriller. I'm not entirely sure how to categorise it, but it does the job as a light read. I hope to read more from this author.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Mini reviews #6

The Man in the Queue (1929) by Gordon Daviot (Joesephine Tey). Tey’s first detective novel, featuring Inspector Alan Grant, and her most conventional. A rather feeble man queues patiently at the theatre and suddenly drops down dead, a stiletto lodged in his back. Grant, who is both a policeman and a gentleman amateur, calls on his colourful network of allies to track down the guilty party. Great fun, and the series only gets better.

Crime in Lepers’ Hollow (1952) by George Bellairs. Inspector Littlejohn is on hoiliday, at something of a loose end – but not for long. Soon he is mixed up in a murder and embroiled in a family saga. I found the book okay; it’s relatively dark and relatively readable, and has all the eccentricities we might expect from Bellairs. But it’s not one of his best, perhaps because of the very slow start.

Detectionary (1977), edited by Otto Penzler, Chris Steinbrunner, and Marvin Lachman. This is a really useful resource, listing and describing major characters, writers, titles, and adaptations. Sadly, it is not exhaustive, and I don’t believe it’s been updated, but it’s still thoroughly useful. And it’s interesting – it’s strange to see which characters were considered major and which were not, forty years ago.

The Back Passage (2006) by James Lear. A gay erotic tribute to the country house mystery. Set in the 1920s and replete with secret passages (ho ho ho), class stereotypes, and petites morts. While it sounds like a fun idea, the author isn’t quite able to merge the crime plot with erotic elements, so the two strands of the novel jar with one another. This is a shame, because in his ‘straight’ gay novels, written as Rupert Smith, he manages to synchronise sex and plot very well.

The Spectrum of English Murder (2015) by Curtis Evans. This book explores the crime fiction of Henry Wade (Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher) and G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, who occupied firm positions on the right and the left of British politics respectively. Evans has an insightful and diligent approach, making his subjects come alive, and illuminating their under-valued crime fiction.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton

What is it about golden age mysteries set on trains? I have two theories. The first is my scholarly view: we have to put these 'transport mysteries' into context. The sealed transportation pods provide closed communities, but (vaguely) democratised ones -- think Murder on the Orient Express, where people from several continents and all walks of life are bound together and can't escape -- and they represent both closed space and spacelessness, especially when a vehicle travels internationally. In the interwar years, this is mass-communication and technology at its apex, hurtling towards an uncertain future that might or might not open up the world.

My second theory is much more mundane: I enjoy the complete disparity between how trains were and how they are. Third class carriages, attentive, class-conscious porters, smoking carriages, slipping the guard a banknote to get a whole section of the train to oneself, the very concept of climbing onto the roof... it's fascinating social history.

Death in the Tunnel (1936) was written by Miles Burton, a pseudonym of Cecil Street (he also wrote as John Rhode), one of the most prolific of the golden age novelists, who is just coming back into print with the British Library's Crime Classics series. It features Burton's well-to-do amateur sleuth, Desmond Merrion, and his sparring partner, the extremely limited Inspector Arnold.

Arnold is investigating the death of a wealthy baronet, who has apparently committed suicide on board a train, as it passed through a tunnel. Unconvinced that it is suicide, he calls on Merrion who, initially, fails to smell a rat and politely tells the Scotland Yard inspector to do one. But then Merrion is struck by the fact that the baronet seemed to be travelling without a ticket, and the faint whiff of rodent sets him on the trail of a murderer -- or murderers.

I enjoyed Death in the Tunnel, my first experience of Street's fiction, more than I expected to. Street has often been described as belonging to the 'humdrum' school and was often the butt of his fellow writers' quips because of a perceived earnest focus on plot over and above any form of engaging the reader: Nicholas Blake once wrote that Street tended to create 'ciphers in the place of characters'. And it's true that psychology doesn't enter into this book at all, beyond the question of Why would a very wealthy man commit suicide? He was rich! Obviously he didn't kill himself! There is, however, a very complex puzzle which is unravelled bit by bit so that it doesn't feel too complicated in the reading. It's amazing, really, how an impossible crime -- a real locked-room scenario -- gradually unfolds into one inevitable sequence of events.

The characters are stock figures and are introduced in very few words -- 'the chap appeared, round-faced, and betraying no marked symptoms of intelligence' -- whereupon they conform to type. When we meet 'a middle-aged man of morose disposition', we are not floored to find out that his name is Mr Bleak, and he doesn't perk up. Gladys Mitchell and Agatha Christie also sketched their characters in very few words, but they took great pleasure in playing with our expectations -- they knew that we would recognise a few traits and make certain presumptions, then be shocked to have those presumptions turned on their heads. Nothing is turned in Death in the Tunnel. Instead, events progress in a linear manner and characters do not progress at all. They are so many chess pieces.

There is, however, great fun to be had in the relationship between Desmond Merrion, with his unapologetically wild imagination, and the stolid, sensible Inspector Arnold. I found Merrion to be a nice twist on the upper-class amateur who tends to be overly scrupulous about evidence. Instead, he goes off on wild tangents and is happy to employ blind guess work, without feeling bound by his thesis. This horrifies Arnold, who nonetheless can't complain about the results.

Once Merrion has explained the solution to the puzzle, things happen very quickly. There is no subplot to tidy up, no romantic triangle to resolve, no running joke to wheel out. We are simply told that the guilty party faced the hangman.

I thoroughly enjoyed Death in the Tunnel and am looking forward to reading The Secret of High Eldersham (1931), published in the same series and dutifully lined up on my TBR shelf (which is a real, physical thing). Street/Rhode/Burton is hardly a neglected genius, but I'm very pleased to see him back in print.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Poison for Teacher by Nancy Spain

A few years ago, researching for my PhD on Agatha Christie and queer theory, I came across some entertainingly pithy reviews in a 1950s tabloid archive. The byline named Nancy Spain, which was a new name to me at the time, but from the flashy photograph and the fact that the reviewer was clearly supposed to be as big a deal as the reviewee, I decided to Google her.

There was little information online at the time, but over the years the name has stuck and I've garnered a working knowledge of Nancy Spain. A niece and biographer of the Mrs Beeton, she was an early media celebrity: a gossip columnist and a regular on television panel shows such as What's My Line? Spain cultivated a frothy, acerbic, camp persona, and lived relatively openly with another woman (Joan Werner Laurie, a founder of She Magazine). When the couple died in a plane crash in 1964, Spain's close friend Noel Coward said, 'It is cruel that all that gaiety, intelligence and vitality should be snuffed out when so many bores and horrors are left living.'

What I didn't know until recently was that Spain did not simply review detective novels; she wrote about ten. These include Death Goes on Skis (set in a resort called Schizo Phrenia) and books with titles that tell you everything you need to know about the tone: Murder Bless It, Cinderella Goes to the Morgue, Out, Damned Tot...

None of these is in print any more, but one is fairly easy to get hold of. Poison for Teacher (1949) was reissued in 1994 as part of Virago's Lesbian Landmarks series, making second-hand paperbacks easily obtainable. So I bought one for 37p and gave it a go.

Alison Hennegan's introduction makes clear why Spain's work has fallen out of print, and why it was a struggle to get this, her least problematic title, included in the series. Hennegan writes of 'apparently racist and anti-semitic attitudes' which pervade the text. She pulls out the old defence that these attitudes only appear in dialogue and therefore exist as satire above anything else, but I don't find any evidence in the text to support that reading. The well-trodden 'it's ironic' defence is an easy one that people use as a get-out-of-jail-free card when confronting their enjoyment of problematic texts, and I first noticed it when I was a theology student and my lecturers were trying to justify some of the more horrific elements of scripture.

So I'm not going to dwell on the racist, anti-semitic, and, in fact, homophobic character portraits here because they are not pleasant. If we can avoid these -- and there's no reason Spain can't be edited and reissued, as Wheatley has been -- then we can get down to the business of enjoying the campy narrative.

The mystery centres around an exclusive girls' school called Radcliff Hall (ho ho ho... the essence of camp humour is that the codes are easy to break but only 50% of straight people will recognise them as codes). The school's headmistress calls in two detectives, Miriam Birdseye and Natasha du Vivien.

Birdseye is a rather wonderful creation: based on Hermione Gingold, she's a gregarious, thrice-divorced burlesque dancer who 'keeps theatre hours', dispises children, and has a photographic memory. She also gets the best lines:
'I always used to tell my husband he was going mad,' [Miriam] said. 'In the end, he did,' she added triumphantly.
Only one character recognises Birdseye from her career on the stage -- a police sergeant who is sufficiently starstruck upon coming face to face with 'Miss Birdseye of Positively the End and Absolutely the Last or whatever them revues was called' to reveal a load of confidential information.

Natasha is a former-ballerina from Russia and she is just getting bored of her husband, a former wrestler who was the hero of previous novels.  She leaves Johnny du Vivien at the beginning of the book and sets up an agency with Miriam, called Birdseye et Cie. Their first client tells them that something is afoot at Radcliff Hall, and, to cut a long story short, our two heroes enrol as teachers, becoming quickly involved in a school play, with staff and students among the cast. A survey of golden age crime tells us that boarding school plays are lethal, and, sure enough, on opening night, one of the teachers dies on stage.

The investigation that follows centres around a randy doctor, some extremely petty teachers and parents, an utterly mundane detective novelist, and the usual round of irritating children who mostly keep out of things. The mundane detective novelist is rather interesting: he writes gripping, adventurous, puzzling plots but straight out refuses to believe that anything remotely surprising could ever happen in real life. And the doctor  despises him and all he stands for, providing the book's obligatory meta moment: 'I never read detective stories', he says. 'They appear to me to combine all the worst faults of the crossword puzzle and the Grand Guignol, with none of the compensations.'

If Spain is doing one thing, it is avoiding this diagnosis for her own novel.  I enjoyed her brutally laconic way with words. Here is how she introduces one character, Roger, who is blatantly gay and who has appeared in a previous book:
He was dressed as a young American with a white shirt and a hand-painted tie and a very nasty red-plush hat. It was the sort of hat that is left unsold in the shop windows in the Charring Cross Road. He had no socks on. He was staring gloomily at his lean brown ankles, crossed one over the other.
When Natasha decides that she simply has to catch the killer, it is not for orthodox reasons, but for aesthetic ones:
She was sick of enforced confessions and spectacular and unresolved endings. She wanted no more murderers committing suicide [...] Nothing short of the Old Bailey and a darling judge in a black cap would satisfy her. It is quite possible that Natasha hankered after a gracious appearance in the witness-box. Possibly in hyacinth blue. Yes, hyacinth blue would be exactly right for a witness for the Crown.
There is a definite focus on clothes in Poison for Teacher, and I would love to see what Clothes in Books might make of it. As a non-clothes-y reader, I can only say that reducing criminal justice to a 'darling' 'black cap' and a chance to be seen in 'hyacinth blue' adds the the spectacular campiness of the mystery.

And it is a mystery, but I haven't focussed much on that element because the pleasure of reading lies more in the wit than in the plot. In fact, although I read Poison for Teacher just three weeks ago, I had to scan the list of character names which graces the front page to remember who died and which of them dunit. All in all, Poison for Teacher is worth reading, and not taking too seriously, if you like old campiness, and if you happen to come across it. I think that's the best way to put it.