Saturday, August 26, 2023

The Skeleton key - Erin Kelly

The mention of Kit Williams Masquerade was enough to get my interest in this book and I was intrigued by the gothic look of it - not another of the blue and yellow covers which are apparently uniform for a lot of contemporary crime fiction. The Skeleton Key didn't disappoint and didn't make me squeamish which is my other issue with a lot of contemporary crime. 

It opens in the late 1960's with a trio of young artists, Frank, Lal, and Cora getting drunk. Between a liberal amount of booze, infatuation, and folk music the idea for a book that is part folk story, part work of art, and an actual treasure hunt that will take you around the UK is born. Illustrated by Frank with Cora as his muse - they bury a gold and bejeweled skeleton of their heroine, and folklore inspiration, Elinore separated into 9 pieces on their honeymoon.

From there the action bounces across the years - to the early 1990s. Frank and Cora are rich on the back of The Golden Bones, but it's become a millstone as well. Fans are obsessive and there's a theory that the final piece of Elinore is hidden inside the body of their daughter Nell, who's almost killed when someone tries to cut it out of her, Frank hasn't been able to come up with anything else, and Lal his best friend is stuck in a spiral of alcoholism.

More years pass, Lal and his wife Bridget are living next to Frank and Cora, the families unhealthily close, Lal has found success illustrating his wife's books and Frank is on the verge of a comeback when Nell is attacked again...

In the more or less current day (2021) The Golden Bones has reached its 50th birthday, there's an anniversary edition in the works, a new app, and a lot of interest in Lal and Frank, now two grand old men of the art world. Nell's life has continued to be haunted by obsessive bone collectors and the families have grown. But the celebrations and renewed interest in putting Elinor back together are about to unearth a whole lot of long-buried secrets - will the lady rise? Or will something else surface instead?

There's a good chance anyone in their late 40s and over will remember Masquerade with affection, it was a phenomenon back in the late 1970s - a beautiful book with a puzzle and a prize of a golden hare which took 3 years and a lot of vandalism to find. Kelly has obviously got an eye on a few of the big artists of the time for Frank and Lal too - there are shades of Ted Hughes, Lucian Freud, Dylan Thomas - all sorts in there which are a fun puzzle of their own to pursue if you're inclined. The speculation on how something like this would take off in the internet age feels spot on too - the stakes become higher and when information can be around the world in seconds. 

I really enjoy a narrative that flits back and forth, here over 50 years told from multiple points of view - each chapter is dated so it's easy enough to follow. It's a great page-turner as you slowly come to understand the full extent of what everybody has been hiding. I didn't realise until after I'd finished the book that Erin Kelly worked on Broadchurch, but it makes a lot of sense - there's the same slow burn and attention to detail, the same interest in seeing how different people react to a specific event.

When a real human pelvis turns up where a miniture gold jeweled one is expected it's suddenly obvious that there has been a murder - but it's not clear who's, or even when it might have happened, much less who might have done it or why. Various motives are revealed along the way along with obsessive fans, collectors, private detectives, and a police force possibly less than happy at having to unravel it all.

It's a clever, twisty, gothic-tinged, hard-to-put-down book that I found utterly compelling. All the characters are complicated, few of them entirely sympathetic, but all convincingly human. Kelly is really good at demonstrating how morals and language change over generations and the long-term effects of abusive and co-dependent relationships. It's the perfect crime/thriller for me - a throwback to the puzzle being the main thing, and done here with wit and elegance. 


  1. So glad you enjoyed it. I bought a copy when it came out and promptly forgot about it. My father and I were fairly obsessed with Masquerade, and were beginning to get somewhere (we thought!) when the jewel was found.

  2. I loved Masquerade, I read this one primarily for work because it sounded the most fun one on offer. I wasn't wrong - I definitely recommend digging it out - I flew through it despite the relatively hefty length. I really liked the way Kelly takes her time to follow a crime through its consequences.