Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Cinderella Goes To The Morgue by Nancy Spain

Image from here.
Sadly no d/w with my copy.
In amongst all the excitement of a new issue of Shiny New Books, I've remembered about a little pile of books that have been waiting a while to be reviewed. Most of them are books I started before my reader's block, and staggeringly finished some time later - such as Nancy Spain's Cinderella Goes To The Morgue.

I posted about Nancy Spain back in April, after coming across mention of her in a re-read of Ann Thwaite's wonderful biography of A.A. Milne, and asked if anybody had read her detective novels. There was quite a lot of interest, and Scott was even reading one as he wrote. Karen later followed up with a lovely review of Poison For Teacher, but I was lagging behind. I bought a copy of one of her books which filled a gap in A Century of Books, and eventually managed to finish Cinderella Goes To The Morgue (1950), which came somewhere in the middle of her detective novel output.

It stars her 'detective' (not much detecting seems to go on), the lovely Russian Natasha DuVivien. We know Natasha is lovely because we are told so more or less every time she does anything - and she does a lot more of crossing and uncrossing her lovely legs than she does anything else. She is a rather enchanting mix of naive and worldly-wise, never nonplussed but also a little detached from the doings of lesser mortals. And, being a Russian in a 1950 novel, she is always having the most curious syntax:

"I am so sure," said Natasha, "that you are right. But what motive could anyone ever have for killing another person? It is always worrying me. Unless, of course, they are mad people," she added vaguely, looking out of her window. 
Her breath made a little fog of its own on the glass, within the world, yet not of it. 
"Oh," said Mr Atkins briskly, "jealously, ma'am. Jealousy and passion and hate. And greed. The usual things." 
"The Seven Deadly Sins," said Miriam gently. "Lust and anger. Any of them, in fact, barring sloth."

This excerpt hopefully demonstrates the archness of Spain's writing (I love that 'within the world, yet not of it' - a sort of paraphrase of John 17:16 - and how many authors would say it of foggy breath on glass?) and also serves to introduce us to Miriam. She is Natasha's slightly more worldly (and, it has to be said, slightly less lovely) friend. And it is she who gets them tangled up in the local pantomime.

The title is a bit of a red herring. Early on in the book, it is actually Prince Charming who pays an unexpected visit to the morgue - and Miriam steps into her shoes. She isn't the last body to be carted out of the theatre (the show must go on), but the murder mystery plot is really incidental to the novel. It's not an Agatha Christie situation, where whodunnit is paramount - and brilliant. In Cinderella Goes To The Morgue it is neither. The solution is cursory and unconvincing, but that really isn't the point. My favourite sections, indeed, were those which didn't deal with the murder mystery, such as:

Outside some shrill little voices were suddenly raised in screaming and breathless information about 'Good King Wenceslas'.

"How odd it is being," said Natasha inconsequently, "that this old man who is once looking out of a window and that is absolutely oll I know about him."

"He was deep and crisp and even for a start," said Timothy.

"No, no," said Natasha. "That was his page."

I loved these interludes, and only wish there had been more of them. Spain often sneaks in unexpected words or slightly silly descriptions of things, in the middle of a police questioning or a discussion about potential murderers, which are easy to miss if one isn't careful. I'm going to keep coming back to that word 'arch', but it describes Spain perfectly.  I'd have quite liked her to take it up a notch or two more, so that the novel was a step nearer farce, but she still has plenty of fun satirising the detective novel ("Look at her now! She deserves to be murdered") and the theatrical world. Although my dramatic ventures have gone no further than the village stage, I still loved her riffs on people who abuse the limelight:
"Hampton," said Tony Gresham suddenly. "Hampton has given Mic and Mac carte blanche to ad. lib. in the Baron's Kitchen. Isn't it dreadful?"

Miriam paused in the act of tucking her hair into a superb white wig with side curls.

"No!" she cried horrified. "You can't mean it. Well, we'll be lucky if this pantomime is over by one in the morning. Very lucky."
There are a whole host of characters I've not mentioned at all, from angry producers to the delightfully appalling 'Tiny Tots' (and their aggressive Stage Mothers). All the ingredients are there - I have to confess, though, that the novel didn't quite live up to the sum of its parts. I very much enjoyed it, but had hoped it would become a book to add to my 50 Books List... I don't want to add on a negative note, and I can't pinpoint any reason why this isn't an all-time favourite, but I also don't want to oversell it!  But anybody with an interest in arch detective fiction and mid-century silliness could do a lot worse than tracking down Nancy Spain. Do report back if you do!


  1. Sounds hilarious! Not sure if I'll b seeking it out, though.

  2. Lovely review Simon and thinking back to my reading of Spain, I agree with you. It's very funny and clever and yes, arch, but somehow doesn't quite make it to top notch. But still great fund for a light read, I think!

  3. I love the sound of these books. I will soon be reading my first ever Nancy Spain novel Not Wanted on the Voyage - thanks to you and others banging her drum.

  4. I just love the title of this one! The archness sounds as if I'd probably enjoy reading one of her books, but might wear a little thin if I read more ... I should try one, shouldn't I?

  5. Have you come across Caryl Brahms and SJ Simon?


    A Bullet in the Ballet is a good start.


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