The Spoilt Kill – A Staffordshire Mystery by Mary Kelly. A 1961 novel republished in the British Library Crime Classics series

The Spoilt Kill (Hedley Nicholson #1) by Mary Kelly

The Spoilt Kill – A Staffordshire Mystery by Mary Kelly

Just to prove that not all murder mysteries need to take place in a country house, or the excitement of London, this novel from 1961 is set in a pottery in Staffordshire. It is very educational in terms of the process of creating tableware from design to final sale, and the details are carefully woven into a clever plot of murder and industrial espionage. This novel has been reprinted in the highly successful British Library Crime Classics series. As Martin Edwards points out in his informative Introduction, it marked a high point for writer Mary Kelly with its blend of a realistic workplace setting with almost lyrical descriptions of the surrounding area. It is also excellent on characters – Corinna as the designer with a mysterious past, Gillian being a demanding wife, the ambitious Dudley, attractive Freddy and the responsible Luke. Others jostle for attention as they work in Shentall’s Pottery or are linked to it, and they are all considered by the thoughtful Hedley Nicholson, private investigator who narrates in a calm, sometimes resigned way. The unusual structure of this book means that a body is discovered “What happened” with its identity concealed from the reader, then a section which explained the build up to the find “What happened before”, and then a section of “What happened after” which explains the events which followed. I particularly enjoyed this section, as sometimes the crime is solved and all the characters instantly disappear from view, which can be frustrating if I have developed an interest in them. This is a well written and satisfying addition to the series, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this intelligent and sensitively narrated novel.

The novel begins with Nicholson observing the subdued Corinna guiding a party around the pottery, gloomily aware of her sadness. The tourists ask questions, allowing her to expand on the description of the site. In a quiet way she explains how the kilns are no longer coal heated but gas fired, cleaner and less effort. In time she will show Nicholson the area which has been transformed by this change of fuel; this is a carefully researched book in which the setting is enhanced by the dialogue, as well as being deeply rooted in character. Nicholson is attracted by Corinna, but her reticence is deep rooted and he is confused by her sudden bursts of revelation. Can he trust her, or indeed any of the other characters he has been brought in to investigate, as potentially lucrative designs have been appearing elsewhere on inferior products. The system of design and production has some gaps which would allow the designs to be misappropriated, but there seems no easy way to discover who is responsible. The appearance of a body in a shocking way elevates the investigation to a new level, but is Nicholson ready to discover the truth?

This is a novel which is outstanding for its sense of place and setting, as well as its resigned narration by Nicholson. It is never easy to review a mystery novel without giving too much away, but it is easy to point out how genuinely well written this novel is, revealing so much about the fictional characters Kelly has created through as seen through Nicholson’s eyes. I recommend it as a very readable book which reveals much about its time and setting.

The Christmas Egg by Mary Kelly – a classic seasonal mystery reprinted by the British Library

The Christmas Egg: A Seasonal Mystery Paperback British Library Crime Classic

 

This reprinted 1958 novel, the seasonal offering from the excellent British Library Crime Classics series, makes only glancing mentions to Christmas so can be enjoyed at any time. While not the most complex or clever plot, this book abounds in atmosphere, characterisation and a sense of place that transforms it into a crime novel for most engaging reading. The main character, the extremely well drawn Chief Inspector Brett Nightingale is a forerunner of Dexter’s Morse; with an impressive knowledge of the classics and music, he appears as a receptive and perceptive man as he absorbs information about the Russian element of this novel. He too has an active and sometimes hapless helper in the form of Sergeant Beddoes, who has to throw himself into various challenges throughout the book. This is a most satisfactory novel  that works on several levels, as the descriptions of objects, place and the realities of a criminal pursuit are set up. The sound knowledge of the streets of London in a particular area is very satisfying, as well as the dreariness of certain lives lived there. Nightingale’s leaps of deduction deserve special mention, as well as his very human qualms about his own behaviour. As always, Martin Edward’s Introduction forms a fascinating introduction to this little known but extremely able writer, and entices the reader to investigate not only this reprint but others on her list. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

 

The book opens with a dead body. Princess Olga Karukhin, despite her royal birth and upbringing in Tsarist Russia lies on an ancient metal bed, under an assortment of tatty blankets, in a mean and shabby boarding house. It appears she has not really left the room for decades, and it would be a sad but not unexpected death except for an empty wooden trunk. Exactly what was in the recently disturbed trunk only emerges when the landlady reveals two objects of enormous value which she had been given by the seemingly destitute old lady. When Nightingale and Beddoes come upon the scene it is only after the local police have established some of the facts. A grandson, Ivan, is missing, and when Nightingale does some research he finds that the old lady was a refugee from the Revolution, who brought the younger man over with her. Beddoes is dispatched to various public houses known to be frequented by Ivan, and he finds this an ultimately challenging task. Meanwhile Nightingale investigates the Russian connection, and finds himself interested in a young woman called Stephanie as her boss seems to be thoroughly involved in the contents of the trunk. 

 

This is a mature and sophisticated novel which is packed with references to Russian objects d’arte and classical tales. Snow and challenging weather play their part in journeys and other excitements. I enjoyed reading about Nightingale’s deliberations, especially in the context of his very human and realistic concerns about his wife, musical performance and general expectations. I recommend this to any fans of classic detective novels, especially those who appreciate character led stories. Another excellent choice by the British Library, especially for this time of year.      

 

As I indicated a few posts ago I will not be posting a round up of the year or top ten books – I have reviewed about two hundred books this year and life is too complicated to plough through them all! I will be looking to review at least two more British Library books over the next few days, Christmas lunches permitting!