The Spoilt Kill by Mary Kelly

The body in the clay…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The prestigious old firm of Shentall’s Potteries has a problem – it seems someone may be leaking its designs, allowing counterfeiters to flood the market with cheap copies. The current head of the firm, Luke Shentall, has his suspicions of who is guilty, so calls in a private investigator to find proof, or alternatively to prove someone else is the culprit. It’s the investigator, Nicholson, who tells us the story, and he starts in the middle with the discovery of a body in the ark, a vault in which the liquid clay is stored…

This is a very different take on the traditional detective story. The narration gives it something of the style of the noir first-person private eye stories of the US, but without the true noir feel. Nicholson (we never learn his first name) is indeed a man with his own sorrows, somewhat world-weary but still with the ability to believe in the good in people. The other characters however are all fundamentally decent even if they each have their flaws, so that the effectiveness of the story comes from the fact that quite soon neither Nicholson nor the reader really wants any of them to be the guilty party. And especially we want Corinna Wakefield, Luke’s suspect, to be innocent – the reader because she quickly gains our sympathy and liking; Nicholson because he increasingly finds himself developing a deep attraction to her.

The quality of the writing is wonderful; this could as easily be read as literary fiction as crime. Kelly paints a full and affectionate portrait of the landscape and culture of the Staffordshire area and its traditional pottery industry, showing how the old methods and family-run businesses are gradually giving way to newer techniques, more cost efficient, perhaps, and certainly cleaner than the old coal-fired kilns, but also more impersonal. Shentall’s is one of the old firms, and while Luke has introduced up-to-date machinery and equipment, he works hard to retain the traditional atmosphere and values of this being a family concern – not just his own family, but his employees also passing their skills down through the generations, father to son, mother to daughter. This is partly why his suspicions have fallen on Corinna – as a talented designer, she has been brought in from the outside, and Luke can’t bring himself to believe that his long-term employees, many of whom worked for his father and even his grandfather before him, could betray the firm.

Kelly shows the soot-blackened buildings, the constantly-burning furnaces that can be seen from the older coal-fired kilns day and night, the pit, known as Etruria, where Wedgwood’s factory once stood, now the site of an iron works. These could easily be made visions of an industrial hell, but Kelly shows them as having a kind of dark beauty and as the beating heart of this community whose existence is inextricably linked with the potteries that provide their pay and their purpose.

I stared down into the pit, at the black buildings silhouetted against the flushed sky, buildings, some of them, flickering within, as if a river of liquid gold were rolling through them. Clouds of steam and smoke drifted across the shadowy vale, rosy steam, lit from the fires below. There was a continuous hollow rushing sound, broken by clanks of shunting. An engine, raised on a bank, black and red, like a slide, moved slowly backwards and forwards. The whole pit seemed to breathe as it worked; for though it was past midnight on Saturday, and the Newcastle neighbours’ windows were dark, naked lights on gantries and signals glittered all over Etruria.

Mary Kelly

The plot is divided into three sections: the first, a short one describing the finding of the body, though we aren’t given the victim’s identity at this early stage; then two long sections, one set before the finding of the body and one after. Because of the more literary, descriptive prose style it took me a little longer than usual to settle in, but once I had I became completely involved in the slow playing out of the story and in the characters that Kelly creates so well – not just the main players, but the other members of the staff and workers of the pottery, each of whom has their own part to play. The mystery is rather secondary to Nicholson’s growing dilemma – his distaste for the job grows as his feelings for Corinna deepen, and his initial pretence of befriending her so he can get close to her feels sordid now that he discovers he would like to be more than her friend. But he’s a hired hand and must do his best for Luke, and it seems more and more that, innocent or guilty, Corinna is at the heart of the mystery.

I thought this was great, and the ending, when it came, arose perfectly from the characterisation and motivations Kelly had so carefully and subtly built throughout. Shall I admit that it actually made me cry, just a little? Not a thing that happens often, especially in crime novels. A travesty that this one should ever have been allowed to become “forgotten” – Martin Edwards refers to it as her “masterpiece” and for once that word seems perfectly chosen to me.

Book 10 of 20

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40 thoughts on “The Spoilt Kill by Mary Kelly

  1. That writing style looks so good, FictionFan, just from the bits you’ve shared. And I do like it when an author creates complete characters – flawed but decent, and all fully developed people. That’s an interesting context, too, as I know almost nothing about the pottery business. And it’s written in the past tense, too! Yes, this definitely sounds like one I’ll have to wedge into the wish list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well worthy of a TBR slot, I think! I liked the decency of the characters too, and Mr Luke’s loyalty to his staff. And her descriptions were so good, they almost made me nostalgic for the days when factories used to belch out black smoke day and night! I loved learning more about the pottery side too – it’s still the major industry in that part of the world.

      Liked by 1 person

    • She wrote a few with a police detective – I read one of them, The Christmas Egg, and loved it too, though I think this one is better. Then I believe she wrote the odd standalone like this and then… stopped! Bit of a mystery herself, really…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I do prefer well written, almost literary, crime novels to much Golden Age detective fiction, especially those with an emotional punch, and your review strongly suggests that’s the case here. A persuasive crit, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Its always a pleasure to me to find a book that crosses both genres and does well in them both, but I can see why authors don’t do it so often – lots of people seem to prefer the tried-and-true format for mysteries.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I could probably count on one hand the number of times I have been reduced to tears by a book, and I don’t think I have ever cried over a Crime Novel, so this must have been a particularly good one. The word masterpiece is thrown around quite a bit, to the point it has possibly lost its true meaning, but it sounds as though it may indeed have been appropriate in this case.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Me too, certainly in recent years. I used to be a sobber, although even then it was more likely to be a film than a book that reduced me to tears. But these days it takes some doing to get under my cynical guard! Funnily enough, when I used the word masterpiece, I began to wonder what other books I’d said that about and whether I still feel that way with distance. Must do a search…


  4. “The quality of the writing is wonderful; this could as easily be read as literary fiction as crime.” I’ve just this morning been writing something to the same effect about The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau. Bravo to this sort of thing, and thanks for the tip.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I look forward to reading your thought on Adele Bedeau! Actually that’s an excellent comparison – when I was reading this one I felt it had the same kind of greyish noir tone, although in this one the place is real whereas Burnet invented his.


    • Ha, it takes a lot for characters to get under my cynical guard these days and force me to cry over them! 😉 Oh, I think you’d specially like it then – it felt like a really authentic picture of the pottery towns to me, and recent enough (1961) that a lot of it is probably still just about recognisable to people who’ve lived there.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, that sounds intriguing! This certainly felt to me as if it gave an authentic picture of the area, but in the ’60s – however, I think the potteries are still a big part of the culture there.

      Liked by 1 person

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