Nancy Spain's name rang a bell when I saw Virago were going to republish some of her books, but I couldn't quite place it. I think I must have read it somewhere ages ago under the vague context of queer writers, because no detail of her dramatic life had stuck in my mind as it surely would have done if I had actually known anything about her.
There's more in Sandi Toksvig's introduction and a lot more gossip online about Spain and her lifestyle. Reading about her makes me think she might revel in it, so do look her up.
'Death Goes on Skis' was Nancy's 4th book (first published in 1949) and there are references to the three earlier novels throughout. I wondered if this one was reprinted first because it has a winter theme, but looking at the titles due next year, which all come chronologically after 'Death Goes on Skis' I'm guessing it might have to do more with quality, theme, and (judging from some very unimpressed amazon reviews) 'dated language'. Toksvig also mentions this, and there are some somewhat anti-Semitic jokes.
It's enough to notice, but not enough to offend me - but then it's not something I have a personal stake in. I do think it's important to remember that prejudices linger long after our general ideas about what constitutes acceptable language change. It's also true that we all have our own prejudices, some of which are more or less generational, and which it's not always easy to fully understand 70 years down the line. I don't know if Nancy is being deliberately and slyly offensive to everyone she possibly can be at times, if it's unconscious, or targeted. That slight uncertainty is part of her charm.
'Death Goes on Skis' isn't a very serious murder mystery; rather it's a series of jokes and shocks. Just when the jokes lulled me into complacency something genuinely horrible would happen, before everything pivots back to set pieces and jokes again. It 's a disconcerting technique, it took me a good 100 pages to really come to enjoy reading this book, after which I raced through it, increasingly fond of the characters, almost of all of which are horrible.
Some of the jokes have probably survived better than others, stereotypes have changed, and there are characters like Miriam Birdseye, who I gather recurs through the books and is apparently modelled on a close friend of Nancy's who does not appear as fascinating or unconventional to me as I think she once would have. This may partly be due to coming into a series mid way.
On the other hand the shocking parts of the book have lost non of their impact, there's an edge here that time has not blunted. Underneath the humour is a plot about how much damage people can casually do to each other and how corrosive love can be - and this too is the charm. It's the way Nancy unsettles everything. This book is queer in just about every way the dictionary defines it. It will be interesting to read more Nancy Spain.