Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Spoilt Kill - Mary Kelly

It was chance that the last two British Library Crime Classics I picked up were both originally published in 1961, but a happy one because they've been really interesting to compare. Mary Kelly's book is set in the Staffordshire potteries, in a firm very like Spode, called Shentall's. It's still in family ownership and runs along family lines so when some industrial espionage is detected the managing director (Luke Shentall, still only in his mid 30's) calls in a private detective to get to the bottom of the issue.

Whilst Nicholson is investigating a body turns up in the liquid clay and thanks to the relationships he's started to forge with the people at Shentall's he's pulled into the second investigation as well. Mary Kelly also wrote The Christmas Egg which is good, but not as good as 'The Spoilt Kill', at least not in my opinion.

It's not the plotting that makes the difference. In both books Kelly's characters are nuanced and complex - though I think the motivations here make more sense, they're very human and everybody behaves exactly the way you would expect and believe people would behave. The real differences are the way that the potteries themselves take a staring role, and in the social issues discussed.

I'm sort of fond of Stoke on Trent and it's environs. Around the very late 90's my mother and I started making a pilgrimage up there every Christmas to hit the sales. We went to Wedgewood, Spode, the place that made Queensware, Emma Bridgewater, Burleigh and more that I've forgotten. Over the years the nature of the place has changed - it looks ever more down at heel and firms have been sold. I'm not sure what happened to Spode, but it used to be the best place to get white china (rejected before any decoration, dirt cheap, and still really nice to eat off). I finally got rid of it in favour of matching plates a few years back - big mistake.

The Potteries in 1961 might have passed their heyday but they're still a prosperous place with decent job prospects. The details of how the whole process works is fascinating, as is the view of a busy manufacturing town which people are still proud to belong to. When one character originating from London dismisses Stoke as provincial the others politely decline to argue, but they and we know that it's at the heart of an international trade and that there's a difference between being traditionally minded and parochial.

The social observations are interesting too - especially compared to The Body in the Dumb River. There's the same pre-occupation with keeping up appearances, although in this case it's new money rather than old, and a desire to have a television, a washing machine, a better car, all on higher purchase, that causes problems. There's the same sense that divorce, whilst possible, is a scandal to avoid. Both books also have a relaxed attitude to sex outside of marriage.

There's an openness about one character struggling with period pains, and a male colleague acknowledging it and helping her out which surprised me too. Mostly because there's a matter of factness about it which is as it should be, but is still woefully rare in contemporary fiction (at least in  my reading). But that's a detail, the pre-occupation with the just about managing financially being caught up in a credit culture which is only making things worse is a theme that's sadly kept it's relevance.

Altogether there's an odd, but compelling, feeling of having one foot in the past and another in the present day. Well worth reading.

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