Monday, 4 March 2019

Remembering Mary Kelly

Mary Kelly won a CWA Gold Dagger, and she also attracted a good deal of critical praise. Her writing was stylish and unorthdox, and she wrote books featuring a police detective, others featuring a private investigator, and several stand-alone novels of psychological suspense. A good mix of work, to say the least. She also served as Secretary of the Detection Club, and was friendly with writers as diverse as Anthony Berkeley, Michael Innes, Harry Keating, Joan Aiken, and Patricia Highsmith. Yet I don't think it's unfair to say that she is now forgotten. How can this have happened?

Whilst there's no simple answer, one factor is that she ceased publishing crime fiction when she was in her forties, although she lived on for more than forty years after her last book appeared (and towards the end, she started work on a new novel). But that isn't the only reason. Mary Kelly was one of those admirable authors who wrote what she wanted to write, and when she wanted to write it. She was, I suspect, someone who made her publishers despair. But she really could write well.

I've been fortunate enough to talk to Mary's husband, Denis, over recent months, and I hope that I can weave some of the material with which he's kindly supplied me into a magazine article about Mary. Her approach to her craft was so unusual, and her gifts so distinctive, that she definitely deserves to be remembered. For the time being, let me focus on one particular title of hers that was published in paperback as a green Penguin.

Due to a Death, which first appeared in 1962, was her follow up to The Spoilt Kill, her Gold-Dagger winner of the previous year. It shares a key character with the earlier novel. Yet it's an exceptionally bleak book, and a dark tale is told rather elliptically. Most writers would have been tempted to try to cash in on a smash hit by writing a commercial novel, but this story hardly fits the bill. Penguin published it in paperback, but I'm guessing it was hardly a runaway bestseller. It is, however, very well written.

It's a first person narrative, and the story is told by a young woman called Agnes. She's married to a fairly decent cove called Tom, but she isn't content, and she finds herself drawn to a newcomer in the village. We know from the start of the book that someone has died, but the precise nature of the mystery doesn't become clear for a long time. The atmosphere is evocative but melancholy: the setting is a decaying village called Gunfleet. The secret at the heart of the story is even grimmer. Not a light-hearted read, that is for sure. But it's equally true that Mary Kelly was one of the most interesting British writers to emerge in the post-war era prior to the arrival of P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. She wasn't in their league, but who was?   


J F Norris said...

How eerily coincidental that I came across her name for the first time three days ago while reading the Anthony Boucher's intro in an omnibus of Charity Blackstock's novels. He cited Kelly along with Nina Bawden (and several others I already know) as two new writers who were doing new things with crime fiction. Never heard of Nina Bawden either. I immediately went searching for both their books. Expect posts about both women on my blog soon.

Martin Edwards said...

That is indeed an eerie coincidence, John! Nina Bawden was a hugely successful writer of children's and adult fiction for many years, a big name, who began with a couple of detective novels. Mary Kelly, despite winning the Gold Dagger, was never as well-known. Look forward to hearing what you make of them.

Josh Brown said...

I discovered Mary Kelly in Penguin in a second hand bookshop some 40 years ago. I have been re reading her books during the lockdown. She was a remarkably good writer. Novels like Due a Death abandoned the set format of UK crime fiction which few if any authors have done since Agathy Christie. She wrote about the sad limitations of working and middle class life with surgical precision yet retaining a sympathy for the characters and their lives. The 'crime' in such novels were almost incidental. And she could write, clearly, sincerely and with great insight. She deserves to be better known and respected.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Josh. I'm happy to say that, following The Christmas Egg, the British Library is now about to publish The Spoilt Kill. A piece by Mary will also feature in Howdunit by the Detection Club, published in September.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this introduction. I think I will start looking for her novels.
I've been looking for 1970s novels in the crime thriller genre and especially written by female authors. Not sure why, but I think it all started with Audrey Erskine Lindop and Stanton Forbes.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Anon. Probably the most consistent woman writer of the 70s was Ruth Rendell. If you go back a bit earlier, try Margot Bennett and Shelley Smith as well as Mary Kelly. All good writers.