The Spoilt Kill by Mary Kelly

The body in the clay…

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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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The Christmas Egg by Mary Kelly

’Twas three nights before Christmas…

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Three days before Christmas, Inspector Nightingale is called to the scene of a suspicious death. An elderly woman has been found dead in her bed, and given her age it may have passed as natural but for the fact that she appears to have been robbed. Her trunk, which she always kept securely locked, is empty. Nightingale soon discovers she was a Russian Princess who had fled to Britain during the Revolution, bringing with her many fabulous jewels and valuable pieces of art. There has been a recent spate of burglaries and Nightingale suspects this is the latest, somehow gone wrong, leaving Princess Olga dead. But where is the Princess’s grandson? And why is there a note of the name and address of a local dealer in jewellery in her room? Nightingale and his sergeant, the rather cheeky and irreverent Beddoes, set out to investigate…

This isn’t a whodunit – although there is a mystery element around the grandson, the police are never in much doubt that the robbery ties in with the others, and the bulk of the story is about following Nightingale, and occasionally Beddoes, as they try to identify and catch the thieves. It’s very well written and both the settings – first the busy pre-Christmas streets and alleyways of Islington and later the blizzard-bound countryside of Kent – are used to great effect. Nightingale and Beddoes make a great team, obviously fond of each other and with a kind of rapport that comes from having worked together before. Each has full confidence in the other and they are more like equals than superior and subordinate, and there’s a lot of humour in their interactions.

The Princess’s backstory as a Russian émigrée adds another element to the story, and gives it the human interest aspect that can sometimes be missing in stories about thefts and police hunts. And the jeweller whose name is found in her room is a great character – a shrewd businessman with his own Russian background, is he the gossipy charmer he likes to portray, or is this a cover for shady goings-on? Nightingale’s constantly changing opinion about him and other people who might or might not be involved is a lot of fun and gives us a real feel for his character, as an honest man who wants to think the best of people but whose job means he has to consider the worst of them too.

Mary Kelly

The first half of the book sets up the story and introduces the characters, and then the second half becomes more of an action thriller as the hunt for the jewel thieves hots up. I found the whole thing a quick, interesting and enjoyable read that kept me turning the pages – I ended up reading it all in one day which is unusual for me. Apparently Kelly only wrote a few books and then stopped, which is a real pity since on the basis of this one she was clearly very talented. I hope the BL might reissue the two other Nightingale books sometime. And with its Christmassy timing and snowy settings, this one is a perfect read for the festive season. Highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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