There’s a rural girls’ school, an assortment of bizarre characters, a murdered teacher and, of course, a play. It can only be a Nancy Spain whodunit.
Miriam Birdseye is as poised as ever; this time she’s prepared to take on the role of Elocution tutor at Radcliff Hall, right down to the clothes that she wears and her part in the school play. Engaged by the mannish and eccentric Miss Lipscoombe as an unlikely body-guarding service, Birdseye &co. set out for Brunton on Sea disguised as teachers, where all sorts of tomfoolery is afoot.
Radcliff Hall is an old-fashioned girls’ grammar in the county of Sussex. Recently deserted by the enterprising Miss bbirch, the school has turned to bedlam at the hands of one very bored traitor, and it is Birdseye &co’s responsibility to sniff this conspirator out. But it is only during a rehearsal of the school play, Quality Street, that the mischief turns sinister and the prankster finds herself the prankstee. Ex-actress and contemporary private detective, Miriam Birdseye (along with her partner in anticrime, Russian ex-ballerina, Natasha Du Vivian*), is the perfect candidate for investigating the murder of Radcliff Hall’s French teacher, the spiteful Miss Devaloys. But will she expose the murderer before s/he strikes again?
Poison for Teacher would never win the Booker, but, whether you catch on or not, between its sheets, Spain has raised a staunch eyebrow at the society in which she lived. Let’s take one reference from many; the most obvious: Radcliff Hall… otherwise known as Radclyffe Hall, one of the literary world’s most well-known lesbian writers. Not overtly sexual in tone, the underlying themes of homosexuality surface in Pukey, the bumbling Classics teacher, and her too-close interest in Gwylan Fork-Thomas, the elegant Chemistry mistress. It is also latent in the schoolgirls and their adolescent crushes on their tutors, and even in the relationship between Miriam and her partner, the recently separated “Darling Natasha”, who has no wish to be found by her dashing and brilliant husband, no matter how hard he searches.
The question of bigotry hangs over this novel and prevented its republication prior to its being picked up by Lesbian Landmarks in 1979. As well as Spain’s not so complementary portrayal of the only overtly gay character in the book, Roger Partick-Thistle**, there is the “woolly-haired”, “dusky-skinned” and butch Miss Lesarium and the small-boned, “oriental” Jew. It would be easy to get on a high horse about these references, but only if they were to be taken out of context. Spain, being a lesbian and one that openly cohabited with a figure as public as herself, Joan Werner Laurie***, could only be attempting to create a story as a wry outsider inside a society that had pressured her to feign a public relationship with Gilbert Harding. Spain was writing as a writer who would be accepted and published, whilst still imparting a nod to the minorities. Radcliff Hall clearly represents Roedean, Spain’s own girls’ school from the same coastline; and the characters’ bigoted opinions, that of Roedean’s inhabitants.
Poison for Teacher is light-hearted entertainment. With a writing style somewhere between Wodehouse and Christie and not dissimilar to Pamela Branch, Spain delivers homicide with as much humour as she would farce. Witty, satirical and regrettably forgettable, this book would never be hailed for its literary content; however, I put it down feeling cheered and slightly mischievous with not a grisly thought in my head. Tongue-in-cheek and gentle, this novel of murder most horrid, is a surefire pick-me-up that will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, but ultimately unmoved.
* nee Nevkorina
** You’ll recognise him as the screaming queen
*** The creator of SHE Magazine