The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly

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Review by Hayley Anderton

For those of us who can dimly remember the late 1970s there’s a good chance that Kit Williams’ Masquerade is a foundational memory. The riddles and clues were entirely over my head however hard I looked at it, but I spent a lot of time looking – entranced by the illustrations, never mind the possibility of a fabulous Golden Hare as buried treasure. Seeing that it was the inspiration for Erin Kelly’s The Skeleton Key was more than enough to catch my interest here as was the Gothic tone of the cover (the hardback having a black background) which very effectively sets it apart from a lot of contemporary crime fiction.

It opens in the late 1960s 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. The book is illustrated by Frank with Cora as his muse, and they bury a gold and bejewelled skeleton of their heroine and folklore inspiration Elinore, separated into nine pieces, on their honeymoon. They call their book ‘The Golden Bones’.

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 out her pelvis, Frank hasn’t been able to come up with anything else, and Lal his best friend is stuck in a spiral of alcoholism.

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 Elinore back together are about to unearth a whole lot of long-buried secrets – will the lady rise? Or will something else surface instead?

As well as taking inspiration from Kit Williams’ book and the stranger than fiction story it became, Kelly has obviously got an eye on a few of the big artists of the time for Frank and Lal – 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 tempers any nostalgia – the stakes become higher when information can be around the world in seconds, and the more obsessive fans find their echo chambers.

I love a narrative that flits back and forth, as here across 50 years and told from multiple points of view. Each chapter is dated so it’s easy enough to follow and refer back as necessary, and nothing is more effective to me as a page turner. As we slowly come to understand the full extent of what everybody has been hiding it becomes harder and harder to put the book down. 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, and the same economy when it comes to victims. Excellent for someone like me who tends towards squeamish in the face of extensively described violence.

In this case, a real human pelvis turns up where a miniature gold-jewelled one is expected, and it’s suddenly obvious that there has been a murder – but it’s not clear who’s, or when it might have happened, much less who might have done it or why. Various motives are teased out on the way along with crazy 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. It sits somewhere on the border between crime, literary fiction, and horror and is all the better for that ambiguity of genre. It’s an excellent book to embrace the changing season with.

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Hayley is a bookseller and blogs at Desperate Reader.

Erin Kelly, The Skeleton Key (Hodder, 2023). 978-1473680920, 497pp, paperback.

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1 comment

  1. I do remember Masquerade, and this seems like a worthy follow-up!

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