Due to a Death by Mary Kelly – a British Library Crime Classic of a woman’s life and an unexplained death

Due to a Death by Mary Kelly

Due to a Death by Mary Kelly

This is an unusual crime novel from the skillful pen of a late Golden Age writer, as the crime becomes almost incidental to a woman’s story in a distinctive setting. Originally published in 1962, this novel has more recently being republished in the excellent British Library Crime Classics series, and Kelly’s novel which reflects something of the position of women in village communities in the late 1950s is now made available. In Martin Edwards interesting Introduction to this novel, he draws attention to its intensity and unusual form, as well as Kelly’s career as a writer.  

Its setting, “Gunfleet”, is a fictional and very bleak setting for a novel, but its strange mixture of nature and human interference seems suitable to the tone of the book. As Agnes tells her story in flashback, she recalls the events of the past few months, and her unspoken attraction to Headley Nicholson, the mysterious newcomer to the village. The latter had been the narrator of “Spoilt Kill”, a previous and very successful novel by Kelly. His purpose for being in the village is unclear, despite his assertions that he was in retreat, “He had a way of asking apparently idle questions that turned out to be personally loaded.” His asking questions of Agnes makes her reassess everything about her life in Gunfleet, her friends, or at least those who she spent time with, and even her relationship with her husband. The dissatisfaction Agnes expresses as she describes the people around her, the setting and especially her own situation. In a way this is a novel which primarily describes a woman’s own life, rather than being a simple whodunnit or murder mystery. I found it a fascinating novel, and I am so pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review it.

The novel begins with Agnes being driven by a man who has blood stains on his sleeve, while she has cuts, grazes and other signs of trauma. She reveals that it is “Thirty minutes since I’d run away… A last mile at eighty – five with the police closing up behind, impatient, menacing”. What she is running away from, the reason for the presence of the police, her obvious trauma, takes the rest of the novel to explain, and the answer is in no way simple, no way straightforward. A girl’s body has been found, and it is the work of a talented and experienced writer to reveal her identity, and gradually, as well as the motive for her murder. A lot of the story is based around Agnes trying to learn to drive, to pass her test in her own car. This may be symbolic of her striving for independence, her trying to stake a claim to her own life. It becomes clear that she is not permitted to physically go out to work, as wives of museum officials like Tom are not expected to hold down jobs. The presence of children in the book, in the group of friends, seems to be a burden, but also a purpose for wives otherwise denied a role.

In a way this is a book about women’s situation in this strange isolated community. Agnes has particular issues, but it seems that all the female characters are hemmed in by their relationships. It is an unusual but undoubtedly well written book in this collection of crime novels, which gives a true insight into a woman’s life, a community of secrets and a setting which affects the mood of its inhabitants. I enjoyed it as another different and successful novel by Mary Kelly, and recommend it as providing a real insight into Agnes’ life in the late 1950s.

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!