Death Goes on Skis – Nancy Spain

Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

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 a bit of biography in Sandi Toksvig’s introduction and a lot more online about Spain and her lifestyle so I won’t recap it here – although reading about her makes persuades me she would revel in the gossip, and it is worth looking 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 it. I wondered if this title was reprinted first because of its wintery setting, but looking at the titles due next year which all come after Death Goes on Skis I’m guessing it might have to do more with quality, theme, and (judging from some negative Amazon reviews) what I’ll call dated language. Toksvig also mentions this, and there are some comments that point to an underlying anti-Semitism.

It’s enough to notice, but 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, and the very real chance that she might shock or offend at times is a part of her charm for me, and I’m inclined to agree with Toksvig that Nancy has no intention of hurting people with her jokes or comments.

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 whom are horrible – which is another reason I’m not offended by some of the things they say or do. This isn’t a cosy sort of book, people aren’t on the whole meant to be nice, and a lot of them behave really delightfully badly.

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,:the blurb on the back suggests Miriam is a major character but she doesn’t actually feature very much and remained something of an unknown quantity to me. 

On the other hand, the shocking parts of the book have lost none 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 of the thing. 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. 

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.

Nancy Spain, Death Goes on Skis (Virago, 2020). 978-0349013961, 367pp., paperback.

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