A year or so ago, I read and loved Due to a Death, a brooding psychological mystery by the English crime writer Mary Kelly. The Spoilt Kill was published a year before Due to a Death, and it shares something of the same mood – a doomed, fatalistic tone that runs through the book. In short, it’s another triumph for this underappreciated writer, a brilliant literary mystery with shades of Dorothy B. Hughes.
Set in the Staffordshire Potteries in the early 1960s, The Spoilt Kill is narrated by Hedley Nicholson, a private investigator in his mid-forties. Someone has been leaking the new designs at Shentall’s, a traditional, family-run pottery manufacturer in the area, resulting in cheap, copycat versions of their ceramics appearing overseas. With the US representing a lucrative market for pottery, the firm’s MD, Luke Shentall, has hired Nicholson to investigate the situation, preferring a more discreet approach than involving the police. In order to carry out his investigations, Nicholson is posing under the guise of a writer, tasked by Luke to capture the firm’s story in an updated promotional brochure – a cover story that enables Nicholson to go poking around the factory asking probing questions without raising too many suspicions.
The stealth, the pains taken, the risks to livelihood that were involved all added up to one word; money. For all Luke’s information about staff and access and cameras, it was money that I had chiefly to look for; money needed or money spent; someone poor, desperately, habitually, or suddenly; or someone merely greedy; or extravagant. That was why I wanted to see the salary sheets. As for wages – time enough to think about them when I’d fruitlessly exhausted the staff. A great thing was to remember that nothing was impossible; nothing, and no one. (p. 47–48)
The nature of the leaks suggests the culprit is someone with early access to the designs, a factor that narrows the suspects down to a handful of individuals – chief amongst them Corinna Wakefield, a talented artist who produces the firm’s new designs. Moreover, Corinna is one of the few ‘outsiders’ at Shentall’s. A former textiles designer from Manchester with no previous links to the pottery business or the local area, she rarely mixes with the others at the factory, setting her apart from those with generations of family loyalty to the firm.
As Nicholson’s investigation gets underway, the situation is further complicated by two significant factors. Firstly, the world-weary Nicholson finds himself developing feelings for Corinna, an attractive thirty-five-year-old widow with a somewhat shady, mysterious past. Consequently, Nicholson feels torn between his duty to Luke Shentall and his growing personal feelings towards a leading suspect in the case. Secondly, during one of the regular guided tours of the factory, a dead body is discovered in one of the vaults for liquid clay, raising the possibility of foul play in an already tense environment…
Kelly has chosen an unusual structure for her mystery, starting with a ‘What Happened’ section describing the discovery of the body – by Corinna, as it happens. Interestingly, Kelly doesn’t reveal the identity or gender of the deceased at this point, leaving the reader in the dark until the middle of the novel. The second section details ‘What Happened Before’ the dead body is discovered, allowing us to get to know various other key players in the mix, most of whom are potential suspects. Finally, we have the ‘What Happened After’ section, outlining the subsequent developments and the solutions to the crimes.
What’s particularly impressive here is the characterisation. Both Nicholson and Corinna are very skilfully drawn, each with their own hopes, disappointments and preoccupations that gradually reveal themselves over time. Moreover, as in Due to a Death, Kelly infuses The Spoilt Kill with a strong sense of despair. There is a doomed, fatalistic feel to Nicholson and Corinna’s relationship throughout, however strongly the reader might hope for a more optimistic outcome. Moreover, the secondary characters are also neatly captured, from the henpecked accountant Colin Dart and his demanding wife, Gillian, to the brusque, insensitive accountant Dudley Bullace.
Gillian! She was an icicle, a narrow brittle icicle wrapped in a tightly belted scarlet raincoat that exactly matched her lipstick and flattered her crisp black hair and blue eyes. She was in her middle twenties, good looking in an orthodox way, though you wouldn’t have turned to look twice at her; a shell on the beach, one of thousands. (p. 49)
Kelly’s prose style is very literary with a distinctly noirish feel, perfectly capturing the stark beauty of the industrial landscape undercut with a seam of darkness, hinting at the sense of menace lurking within.
Then in the floor of the pit, the pure industrial landscape of the iron and steel and the gas works and the ceramic colourists – black chimneys, level crossings without gates, heaps of slag and coke and scrap, a goods train clanking under a bridge, its engine pushing fat rolls of gritty steam into the sulphurous air. And through the middle of everything lay the Trent–Mersey canal, a motionless strip of water, black and glistening like a slug’s back. (p. 104)
The resolutions, when they come, are eminently credible and believable – more so than usual for this type of crime novel when complex, convoluted solutions are frequently deployed. They’re also very much in keeping with the character traits Kelly develops over the course of her narrative, illustrating how any of us could be driven to act rashly or foolishly in the heat of the moment.
So, in summary then, The Spoilt Kill is a top-notch, noirish mystery with an emphasis on characterisation, psychological motivations, atmosphere and mood. Fans of Dorothy B. Hughes and Margaret Millar would likely enjoy this one – a deserving winner of the CWA Gold Dagger on its original release.
The Spoilt Kill is published by the British Library as part of their Crime Classics series. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.