This is a tremendous crime thriller from 1961, that won the Crime Writers’ Association Critics’ Award for that year. Mary Kelly went on to write more detective novels, but somehow her name has disappeared from sight. Crime fiction historian Martin Edwards says that she stopped writing fiction in her forties, because she chose when and what she wrote, to the despair of her publishers, because she was a top-class writer: skilled, empathic and a natural storyteller.
The Spoilt Kill – a cracker of a punning title, which means a firing of china that’s gone wrong – is set in Stoke-on-Trent amid pottery firms making household china. Here are two quotes from the back of the 1961 green Penguin edition:
How excellently she evokes here the look, the language, the dark sobriety of the Potteries. – Julian Symons in the Sunday Times
Here is a proper detective story in the best tradition, and thoroughly to be recommended … The characters’ well-observed uncertainties and agonies are properly integrated with well-clued detection. – The Times Literary Supplement
‘Well-clued detection’ is a splendid phrase, a conoisseur’s estimation of a fine example of the genre. Kelly created a devious but cleverly plain plot, driven by a highly complex narrative. It’s told in the first person by the man signed up by the head of Shentalls, a Potteries family firm of the stature of Wedgewood or Spode, to find out who has been leaking designs to its rivals. Nicholson is a detective, but not in the police sense, and we enter the narrative in a moment of suppressed tension in which something dreadful has happened, but the reader doesn’t (yet) know what. Nicholson is shadowing Corinna Wakefield closely, head of the design studio, even into the ladies’ cloakroom where she is sufficiently rattled to need a drink. He follows her everywhere as she goes about her duties, which include taking a party of visitors around the works. And he’s right there behind her when she discovers the body.
So that gives us two separate mysteries, which may or may not be connected. Nicholson recounts his investigations partly as impressions, partly as recorded details, and his attention to detail is forensic. He recounts his observations, his emotions, the reactions of the other characters, the dust on the floor, fleeting expressions in a mirror, the details of the shops and the bars, the cafés and the cars, the contempt of a dissatisfied wife for her failing husband, and his increasing fascination with Shentalls’ staff and its family history.
It’s also a brilliant novel about 1960s provincial life, in which the swinging Sixties of London were very far away, and the plainness of Stoke and its social life is set firm in rigid, stultifying 1950s respectability. This is definitely a novel to reread, not just for retreading the steps of the plot, once we know Whodunit, but also to appreciate again Kelly’s subtle drawing of her unhappy characters in her relentless, clever plot.