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The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly

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This recent novel (published in September) wants to be too many things, I think. I was fresh off The Dark Between the Trees and was ready for a bit more folklore in a contemporary setting, and that is how this begins, with the lyrics of an old folk song about a woman’s scattered bones, which are adapted into a ‘treasure hunt’ picture book with buried artifacts and legions of obsessed fans.

I’ve heard a couple of podcast episodes over the past couple of years about Masquerade, the 1979 treasure hunt book featuring a buried golden hare, and The Skeleton Key invokes that book and its attendant controversies. Now, I was 16 in the summer of 1979 when Masquerade was published, and I have a vague memory of media interest, but it didn’t call to me. I’m not a cryptic crossword solver, and I’m not good at that kind of thing. But I was interested in this novel, which promised to explore the mad fan frenzy of the obsessive treasure hunters.

We come in at a point where 50 years have passed. Seven bones were buried, only six were ever found. People have died. The author has tried to move on, and has even announced that the last bone is no longer hidden. Which doesn’t stop the hardcore ‘bonehunters’, who think that everything is just another clue.

Eleanor ‘Nell’ Churcher is the daughter of the author, Frank. She has been estranged from her family following a traumatic episode in her teens. And this is where my issues with this book begin. I find it unconvincing that someone who has deliberately separated herself from her family over these issues, who has refused any financial support, would then turn up to help celebrate a 50th anniversary celebration and relaunch of the puzzle book as an app.

The family are bohemian artistswho live right next to Hampstead Heath, an area of London with, I’m sure, eye-wateringly high property prices. Nell lives on a narrowboat with her sort-of daughter Billie. The neighbours are Bridget and Lal, a tempestuous couple who are best friends with the Churches and exist in a kind of incestuous symbiosis. Nell’s brother has married their daughter.

But okay, let’s pretend our suspension of disbelief isn’t fatally damaged by Nell showing up at the reunion. What happens next is that the celebration descends into chaos, and instead of the revelation of the missing jewelled bone, a real one appears, which belongs to the skeleton of a murdered woman.

And its at this point that the novel loses interest in the bonehunters and the treasure hunt, and the focus shifts to the dead woman and the mystery of who killed her and hid her body. Through several flashbacks, the story is revealed. Does it become a conventional murder mystery? Not really. The novel isn’t really interested in the police procedures, interviews, arrests, searches. It’s all about the fraught family relationships, jealousies, and secrets. All the revelations happen through confession rather than someone uncovering the truth. And without the plot device of flashback, there’s nothing to see.

What I was hoping for, I suppose, was some kind of puzzle box, which would reveal itself through the turning of keys, like fine clockwork, that there would be more puzzling out the clues from the original treasure hunt and then some kind of contemporary resonance. But it’s not that. As I said, the bonehunters are dropped, or at least defanged, and then Nell rides around speaking to various people who end up confessing something or other.

It’s an easy enough read, and although it’s a bit long, you charge through it at pace, so it’s not a drag. But left me feeling a bit flat.

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