The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly, #20booksofsummer24

Being so busy these last couple of weeks at school, I’ve not been blogging much, being tired in the evenings, not sleeping well due to the heat – but perversely getting lots of reading done in the small hours! As a result, I’m doing unseasonably well with my 20 Books of Summer so far this year, I’ve just finished reading my 8th, which is previously unheard of in June, although I have ended up with 5 blog tours next month which will slow things down a little. Still … Onwards!

My sixth read was this fantastic psychological drama from Erin Kelly. But before I get to the book itself, I must revisit the work that inspired Erin Kelly to write this novel.

Kit Williams with the hare jewel he made.

That was Masquerade by Kit Williams with simply gorgeous illustrations shows Jack Hare’s journey to take the jewel from the sun to the moon and dropping it on the way. Williams made a beautiful hare jewel and buried it under the tip of the shadow cast by Catherine of Aragon’s stone in Ampthill, Beds on the equinox. It was made clear that it was on ground open to the public. Although not the first book to describe a real treasure hunt, Masquerade, published in August 1979, caught the public’s imagination in a big way, and trying to decipher the riddle within took up a large part my free time that summer from then until I went back to university, I was beginning to feel I might get somewhere with it, but had no more time.

However, in 1983, Cadbury’s produced Conundrum by Don Shaw, illus Nick Price – with 12 golden eggs designed by Garrard, up for grabs. At work, we’d pored over the one we thought was geographically nearest, and had got very close as it happened, but had no transport to go out to confirm our thoughts. Then a couple of days later, it was on the local news that that egg had been found. Oh well…

Which brings me to this marvelous novel.

Artist Frank Churcher’s bestselling treasure hunt book, The Golden Bones, was published half a century ago. The book’s cryptic pictures and text detailed where to find the seven golden bones that made up the skeleton of its protagonist, Elinore. Only six were ever found, the pelvis remains hidden. As a result, a cult has grown up around the bones and the hunt for the missing one took on a macabre turn when Frank’s teenaged daughter, Eleanor, was attacked and stabbed by one of the obsessive ‘Bonehunters’ who thought it was inside her back in 1992. The attack is detailed in the prologue.

Then we head back to 1969 and the genesis of the book. Frank, his best friend Lal, also an artist, and Lal’s girlfriend Marcelle have been drinking in Kilburn before returning to their house-share with folkie Cora, a potter cum artist, ‘a maker’ in Frank’s parlance. Cora and Frank will wed, Marcelle will become their agent, and Lal will marry Bridget in due course, and the success of the book will enable Frank and Lal to live in next door houses in the exclusive ‘Vale of Health’ enclave on Hampstead Heath.

The UK paperback cover – I love the turquoise!

However, fifty years on, Frank is fed up of being judged mainly as the creator of The Golden Bones, not the great artist he believes he is, the book having eclipsed his show of nude muses, Intimacies. It’s time to reveal the seventh bone, and his house is the location for a TV documentary being filmed which will reveal the final secret on publication day of the new anniversary edition.

Meanwhile Eleanor, who was of course traumatised by the stabbing, has rejected everything the book represents, living quietly on a narrowboat on London’s canal network, having taken no money from Frank. She is a craftswoman too, making stained glass ornaments, selling enough to keep herself and her not-entirely-legal ward Billie, the teenaged daughter of her ex-boyfriend, afloat.

The anniversary edition of the book is bringing out the Bonehunters again. Ingrid, the stabber, may be incarcerated with no access to the outside world, but the other trolls are still there including troll/stalker Stuart Cummins who has an exclusion order wrt Eleanor. Also, the forum run by an American couple is picking up worrying traffic again as speculation mounts about the seventh bone’s whereabouts, and information seems to leak from the TV production which puts Eleanor – and Billie – in danger.

But the real problem is that there are many more skeletons to come tumbling out of the family’s closets. Frank, the swaggering artist, a randy old goat who painted and bedded his muses, ignores his wife Cora mostly. Lal, as his oldest and closest friend, has seen his own career never take off in the same way as his more famous pal, and you just know that will leave seething resentment underneath that will threaten to bubble to the surface as Lal struggles with alcoholism. Cora, Lal, Eleanor, and Dom, Eleanor’s equally ignored brother, also all have cause against Frank, as do many others. I had a lot of sympathy for Lal in particular, for reasons that will be clear to anyone who’s read the novel.

I’m not going to reveal any more of the plot, it’s fabulously complicated and full of twists, turns and revelations, and dare I say it having complained about chunksters in my previous post, needs just short of 500 pages to reveal all of its many secrets!

The main narrator in the present is Eleanor, and Kelly has created a superb main protagonist in her. She is feisty, independent, and not a little proud of her life without familial money. Her parents, for their part, don’t seem to acknowledge that she physically suffered for Frank’s book. Her relationship with Lal and Bridget is closer than that with Frank and Cora for the most part. That’s not to say that she totally rejected her family – only the money – indeed the relationship she has with her brother made me chuckle in recognition.

You wouldn’t say my brother is my best friend – we only see each a couple of times a year – but there is a unique bond, a shared history, that I could never replicate with anyone else.

Also winding him up is one of the greatest pleasures of my life.

This was the first novel by Erin Kelly that I’ve read. It definitely won’t be the last – can any of you recommend which I should pick up next?

Source: Own copy. Hodder & Stoughton, Hardback 497 pages – but now in paperback 512 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

6 thoughts on “The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly, #20booksofsummer24

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    This sounds fascinating, Annabel! I had a copy of Masquerade too – still do, in fact, signed by Kit Williams who I met when he did a session at a local bookshop. But I could never get anywhere near solving it – I’m not great at cryptic crosswords either…

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Having a cruciverbalist, quizzing father, Masquerade was catnip to us! But it was one of the Cadbury ones we were narrowing down on and we were really very close indeed. Kelly’s novel is brilliant and takes skeletons in closets to whole new levels, literally.

  2. Litlove says:

    Ooh I vaguely remember the golden egg thing! I have had Erin Kelly’s We Know You Know (originally Stone Mothers) in my audible library for years without getting around to it, so thank you for bumping that one up the list a bit! This sounds complicated but engaging, and would obviously love to know what you think about WKYK too.

  3. Calmgrove says:

    What a fantastic premise, and yes, like Karen, I too had a copy of Williams’ book (no longer though) and still own the follow up, the untitled book about bees. This novel brings out the dark side of treasure hunters, the obsessives and the sociopaths – sounds even more familiar these days thanks to social media . . .

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