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.