This book is a tribute act of sorts. The first sentence of Erin Kelly’s author’s note to The Skeleton Key reads: “When I was a child my favourite picture book was the 1979 treasure hunt phenomenon Masquerade, by artist Kit Williams.” That book set up a search, not for the missing adjectival hyphen from the previous sentence but for the location of a tiny golden hare that was buried somewhere in England. The letters in the book contained clues as to its location, which eventually transpired to be in Ampthill, Bedfordshire. The premise here (the book’s cover is shown on the home page) is a similar one.
In Kelly’s novel, Frank Churcher has written a novel called The Golden Bones, published 50 years ago. After all this time one bone from the precious remains (literally precious; the bones are made of gold and valuable stones) of the murdered character, Elinore, remains unfound, and there are millions of internet fiends around the world – called ‘Bonehunters’ – who are obsessed about finding it, including at the risk of their own personal safety as well as the well-being of others. The book has made Churcher, who now lives in a lavish property in the desirable Hampstead area of North London, a fortune and he has decided on the 50th anniversary of its publication to have the big reveal as to its location to be shown live on television. Things don’t go remotely according to plan.
This is the third book of Kelly’s I’ve read. Her debut, The Poison Tree (2009), was set in nearby Highgate. Her fifth, He Said/She Said (2017), was a satisfyingly twisting story which took unreliable narrating to almost competitive levels. This latest book, apart from anything else, is a compelling study of an extraordinarily dysfunctional family. The family member on the receiving end of most of the dysfunction is Nell, christened Eleanor, which name being similar to her father’s unfortunate fictional creation has caused her regular grief, both physical and mental, throughout her life. She has determinedly refused to enjoy the abundant financial benefits that have accrued from her father’s work, feeling instead that the book has cursed her existence.
As the story proceeds, much of it told in flashback, we understand that her father’s incessant womanising and utter selfishness have cast a malevolent spell over the entire family and those who come into contact with it. There has been murder amid the mayhem, although that is not known at the beginning of the tale. However, the fall-out from the TV ‘reveal’ debacle leads to a re-evaluation of everything Nell thought she knew about her parents, siblings and friends. She comes to realise that no one is the person she thought them to be.
The existence of the skeleton key sets in train a process of multiple skeletons falling out of the closet. There is a lot going on with this story but Kelly manages to retain control throughout.