Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Due to a Death - Mary Kelly

I loved Mary Kelly's The Spoilt Kill, and quite liked The Christmas Egg (I think I might need to re-read The Christmas Egg again given how impressed I've been with the other two books - I don't remember it being as impressive as the later additions to the Crime Classics series, but I might see much more in it a second time around). 'Due to a Death' moves my admiration of her writing up another level. I think there could well be a debate as to whether this book better belongs with crime classics, or in the women writer's series.

There is a crime, and people do die, but the female narrator and the nature of the crime and who it concerns make this feel like a bit of an outlier, I don't think it's an easy book to pigeonhole in a single genre. 

We start near the end with a bleeding woman in a man's car which for a moment we think might be being chased by the police. They have other business as it turns out. A woman's body has been found on the nearby marsh. Naked, dead, and bloody. The girl in the car is Agnes, her wounds are superficial, and the man driving her is Hedley Nicholson - the same private detective from 'The Spoilt Kill'.

Agnes is the bored wife of Tom. He works in the local museum and they don't much like wives having their own jobs. She's spent her summer flirting with Hedley and drifting along in a sort of dream, but the discoveries of this particular afternoon are forcing her to cast her mind back over the last weeks and days to work out what's been happening around her. How her husband and his friends, her friends, fit into it.

Slowly, painfully, we follow her on that journey, suspecting first this, and then that, before it all comes together at the end in a way that's simply devastating in its wastefulness. What follows will be in the nature of spoilers, so if you don't want to read on I'll say now this book is excellent, unusual, potentially upsetting dealing as it does with quite a thorny subject, and absolutely worth reading.

'Due to a Death' was published in 1962, the contraceptive pill became available, for married women only, in England in 1961, and only married women were meant to get it until 1967 when abortion was also legalized. Before 1967 plenty of unmarried women must have managed to get hold of the pill, but not, I suspect, those living in rural towns where they were well known to their doctors. For those who had enough money, there were semi-legal forms of abortion which would have been considerably safer than the back street or home versions that plenty of desperate women tried. 

Kelly had been an auxiliary nurse working in the East End, and it's clear that she's got a good deal of anger to work off - and rightly so. The body of the book is dreamlike but ominous - Agnes is preparing for her driving test, aware of some odd undercurrents but mostly wrapped up in her own infatuation with Hedley (and Kelly is masterly in the way she flips the tables from The Spoilt Kill to show him as an unflashy but convincing object of desire). Agnes is a difficult character, but honest enough about her faults to be relatable. It's only in the last few chapters that everything comes together and the dream definitely becomes a nightmare. 

There is a slightly sensational element to this, but it's handled well and as the stakes are quite high the tragedy that unfolds is feasible. The subject matter is sensitive, but for the most part it's sensitively handled, and Kelly is brilliant at maintaining her atmosphere and delivering her judgement. I honestly recommend this book - as an unconventional crime thriller, and for it's feminist slant. 

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