(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

A Mary Kelly novel does not ordinarily begin with the discovery of a body, but instead with the establishment of the confusion of a central character. In her first novel, A Cold Coming (1956), for example, Alec Stormer awakens on the edge of a cliff, with no knowledge of where he is or memory of how he came to be there. Less dramatically, the librarian in March to the Gallows (1964) spots a medallion, which has been stolen from her, being worn by a strange woman; from her puzzlement about the reappearance of that medallion comes the larger mystery that is the core of the book. The Twenty-fifth Hour (1971) also begins with a puzzled protagonist, in this case a devoted aunt, who cannot understand why her niece in France has sent for money without explaining her needs. There is no suggestion of criminal activity until the aunt gets to France, and even then, she is concerned primarily about the safety of her secretive niece, who is finally dragged back to England. Because a Kelly novel often begins with seemingly unexplainable events and sustains that nightmare atmosphere throughout the book, it holds the reader in suspense in a very different way from the novel of detection, which offers subtle clues, both valid and misleading, all along the way.

The industrial settings also produce an almost surrealistic quality in the novels. The landscape of Due to a Death (1962) is not the green countryside of England but an ugly industrial estuary; the body in The Spoilt Kill is found in a clay-filled machine for making pottery. Generally, the homes in which Kelly’s characters live are either unlovely, standardized middle-class houses or sordid slums.

The Spoilt Kill and Due to a Death

The flaws of Kelly’s characters are as evident as the defects of their surroundings. After her third novel, she abandoned the musical inspector for a mysterious private investigator or secret agent, Hedley Nicholson, who appears in The Spoilt Kill and Due to a Death. Nicholson’s own uncertainties are evident in both of these novels. In the first, he has been hired by the management of the pottery to investigate the theft of some designs. His undercover work demands that he deceive the chief suspect, a widow; unfortunately, while he is cultivating her friendship, gaining her trust, as his job demands, he first likes and respects her, then falls in love with her. With this new focus, he sees himself more clearly. As he lies, snoops, and reports to his employer, getting people fired and jailed, he becomes more and more disgusted with his work and himself, less and less capable of setting himself apart from the thief and later from the murderer whom he is pursuing. At last, he is as much a loser as those whom he destroys; when the widow, who is innocent, discovers that he has been lying to her and using her, she is brokenhearted; although she loves him, she feels that she cannot trust him, and she breaks off the relationship. This consciousness of self-destruction by one who is supposedly on the side of right explains Nicholson’s rejection of any close relationship in Due to a Death, to the bewilderment of the female narrator, who admires him and throughout the novel is on the verge of loving him.

Like Graham Greene, to whom she has been compared, Kelly creates not only confused and tormented heroes but also sometimes appealing and understandable villains. In The Spoilt Kill, the murderer is a man who committed his crime almost by accident, a man whom Nicholson, the investigator, recognizes to be more generous than he. Similarly, in Due to a Death, the murderer is a kind man who shows a profound love for his son by his first marriage and a great patience with his shrewish second wife; when he is discovered and kills himself, one is not relieved that a killer is out of the way but appalled at the tragic waste.

In all of Kelly’s novels, her Catholic background is obvious. When she shows the defects of her sympathetic characters (their pride, their difficulty in loving others) while pointing out the generosity and kindliness of those who have stolen or killed, she is stressing the fact that all human beings are equal before God and that all are in need of divine grace. Thus after he is exposed, the murderer of The Spoilt Kill, penitent, clearly believes that he has been forgiven by God, though not yet punished by civil law. In contrast, the representative of human justice, the detective Nicholson, is aware of lacking...

(The entire section is 1857 words.)