The Christmas Egg by Mary Kelly

As we edge ever closer to the dreaded C-word, I must confess to being quite happy about the opportunities for reading created by the darker nights and the need to hunker down somewhere cosy! I seem to have been drawn to classic crime a lot lately – those kind of books do seem just right for this time of year – and an added bonus is the annual treat of a seasonal release from the British Library in their Crime Classics imprint. This year’s book is by another author new to me, Mary Kelly, and when I read the blurb I realised that it was going to be ideal reading…. ;D

Getting kind of festive chez Ramblings! 😀

“The Christmas Egg” was Kelly’s third book to feature her detecting duo of Chief Inspector Brett Nightingale and Sergeant Beddoes. Published in 1958, it’s subtitled “A Seasonal Mystery” and the action takes place over three days just before Christmas. The setting is a London still physically showing the after-effects of WW2; there are bombed out areas waiting to be rebuilt, and a kind of tension in the air, with a feeling that times are changing. Gangs of burglars are on the loose, and the old values have fallen away to be replaced with a more nebulous environment. Living in squalor in this world is Princess Olga Karukhin; an exiled survivor of the Russian Revolution, she’s discovered dead as the book opens. Although you might anticipate the possibility of an elderly woman living in poverty to dying in the depths of winter, it transpires that this was murder – and when it emerges that her trunk of valuable treasures has been emptied, the plot really does thicken! Throw in a potentially dodgy dealer in jewellery and antiques, an infatuated young woman, the dead woman’s feckless grandson Ivan, plus a gang of toughened criminals and you have all the ingredients for an exciting and fascinating mystery – which this certainly is!

As I said, Mary Kelly is not a name I’ve come across before, but as Martin Edwards’ excellent introduction reveals, she was very highly rated in her day although she only published a handful of works before abandoning writing. The book is unusual, focusing as it does on the subtleties of class (which was undergoing significant changes at the time) and also on the motivations of its characters. There’s plenty of detecting, yes, and the book doesn’t shy away from showing the police having to do legwork, calling in reinforcements, making mistakes and having a real struggle with their adversaries. Nightingale and Beddoes are an engaging pairing, bouncing off each other and sparring pleasingly, and I wish I’d had the opportunity to get acquainted with the detecting duo in their earlier adventures.

The supporting characters are lively and well-painted bunch too; Majendie, the antique dealer, is an old acquaintance of Nightingale’s, and his hidden depths are gradually revealed during the story. Nightingale’s wife (an opera singer) appears off-camera – he apparently sings too – and he spends part of the book dealing with a young shop assistant from Majendie’s who is not only important to the plot but also has a huge crush on the detective. The Russian element is intriguing (and if you have any knowledge of Imperial Russia, you can probably guess what kind of egg the title is referring to!), and the links back to the past from the 1950s are a reminder that events like the Revolution are really not so far away.

Such a lovely cover illustration – the BL do always choose some wonderful images!

There is a wonderful extended sequence towards the end of the book involving several characters imprisoned in a car racing through Kent in the foul winter weather, while Nightingale expounds on the mystery; this was brilliantly handled, and the book was one where I had a genuine fear for safety of characters. The plot is marvellously twisty, where you really don’t know which side people are one, and I loved that ambiguity. I shan’t say too much more, because the joy of this book is in the reading, but it’s one with plenty of surprises, a vividly conjured atmosphere and location (much of the book is set in Islington) and some stellar characters.

“The Christmas Egg” was a wonderful read, and an excellent addition to the British Library Crime Classics imprint (and their Christmas-based reading!) I ended up thinking it was such a shame Kelly didn’t write more stories of Night and Bed (as they’re ironically referred to at one point), as they really are a wonderful pairing and the occasional reference to their backstories made me extra keen to know more. Kelly’s work was highly regarded by such luminaries as Edmund Crispin, and she was a member of the prestigious Detection Club, so it’s wonderful to see her work creeping back into print. It’s a quirky and entertaining seasonal read, and would be perfect in your Christmas stocking! 😀