Today’s read is mostly told as a retrospective narrative, with an extended flashback over a summer. This put me in mind of another British Library Crime Classic reprint from last year, Margot Bennett’s The Man Who Didn’t Fly (1955). I wondered whether it would be as good. Read on to find out…
‘A car speeds down a road between miles of marshes and estuary flats, its passenger a young woman named Agnes, fresh from a discovery that has turned her world turned upside down. Meanwhile, the news of a body found on the marsh is spreading round the local area, panic following in its wake. A masterpiece of suspense, Mary Kelly’s 1962 novel follows Agnes as she casts her mind back through the past few days to find the links between her husband, his friends, a mysterious stranger new to the village and a case of unexplained death.’
Before our protagonist, Agnes, considers the past few months, Kelly gives us a peek at the ending. Agnes is bleeding, in a car being driven by someone else. Their relationship is taut. She has run away from somewhere, but from what? As the first chapter closes she realises she must sift through memories of the past to see if her own troubles are related to the dead girl found at the marsh. Such an exposition is tantalising ambiguous and open to many possible answers. Suffice to say I was intrigued…
The book is centred on a small village called Gunfleet, a setting which may make readers think of earlier Golden Age mysteries, and whilst there are some parallels to be made, on the whole Kelly uses her location of a ‘decaying village,’ in a different way. In particular the social group she focuses on is rather dysfunctional and rather disingenuous with one another. Agnes is remarkably isolated despite being a part of the group.
Unfortunately, though I would not recommend reading this book for its mystery. As a character study, yes. As a commentary on social issues and human relationships at that time, another affirmative. But for the mystery, alas no. This novel is a slow burning one, and I don’t mind such books, provided there is a payoff in the plot and character department, and for me there was not on this occasion. The narrative is rather uneventful until three-quarter of the way into the story when suddenly everything comes flying out of the woodwork. As a reading experience it felt like being next to a woodpile in which a bomb has gone off, splinters darting out in an unpredictable fashion. Or to use another metaphor it is like walking along when all of a sudden an intense downpour engulfs you. In short the plot becomes abrupt and disorientating. In the previous 150 pages the reader will see glimmers of something shady going on, yet these glimmers are hard to combine with the events in the first chapter. I don’t feel the reader is given enough to get going with the mystery and the glimmers are all too indirect and vague for my liking, which contrasts with Bennett’s novel. In Bennett’s story the flashbacks much more concretely apply to the mystery being solved and the clues it gave felt more direct.
Sadly, this book was therefore not such a hit with me, in some ways I think it could be equally regarded as a non-genre or literary novel. For readers who are keen on such narratives, this title might be for you.
Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classics)