Review: The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly

 One of my resolutions this year was to read some of the dozens and dozens of book shelved on the TBR bookcase in my study.

Some have been there since they arrived as proof copies when I was bookseller (it was years ago – I’m never going to read those am I?) but most are more recent arrivals. And then there are the dozens on my Kindle…

I rarely, if ever, leave a bookshop empty-handed and so this year I decided to try to go no-buy on books. It’s not going badly although a few have sneaked in and besides, I have some book tokens and book tokens don’t count, do they?

The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly sneaked in under the wire last December and I’m so glad it did.

It’s inspired by the story of Masquerade, an actual treasure hunt based on a book that captivated the public in the early 1980s as they decoded the clues in Kit Williams’ illustrations and hunted for the jewelled golden hare that was the buried treasure. I was only ten when it came out but I remember desperately wanting a copy of the book. You can see a documentary about Masquerade here.

In The Skeleton Key, the treasures that can be found after decoding the clues in the fairy story written by Frank Churcher are the bones of a golden skeleton, only one of which is yet to be found.

The book is narrated by Nell, Frank’s daughter who the more obsessive, murderous, Bonehunters have fixated on as the key to finding the last bone, unable to differentiate between what’s real and what’s fantasy. Persecuted, Nell has become reclusive.

Fifty years after the book’s publication, and with one golden bone still eluding the searchers, media interest is building and the family are gathering for the making of a documnetary and the launch of a new treasure hunt. But when Frank finally reveals the location of the last bone, Nell’s world and that of those around her explodes.

I’ve loved Erin’s work since a publisher’s rep first gave me a proof of The Poison Tree, her debut, and I’m always impressed by the way she creates a setting and a cast and and a truly propulsive narrative. The obsession of the Bonehunters is almost palpable and there’s a growing unease about what they’ll do next.
If you like a pyschological thriller this is the book for you, although it’s so much more than those endless dramas subtitled ‘absolutely gripping/unputdownable/addictive’ and so on.

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On finishing. Or not.

The world seems to have moved on from Covid. At times, unsettlingly so. We don’t wear masks any more, the use of antibacterial rub is less frequent, and it often seems that people have abandoned any notion of personal space. On the whole it’s a good thing – we’re social animals and living like that isn’t good for us. Quite apart from the illness itself, some people have undoubtedly suffered from the isolation.

At first, I was fine – our son was home, we had a system for shopping for our frail relatives and we have amazing neighbours. And for writers, well, telling us to stay home in our pajamas is pretty much what we’d prefer to do left to our own devices. I was really quite productive through the first few months of lockdowns and restrictions.

But since life regained a degree of normal, I’ve struggled. Not so much with writing itself – that chugs along quite nicely at first. Then I get stuck and fall into a pattern of doubting myself and my abilities (some would say quite rightly!) and before I know it I’m in a pattern of writing, deciding what I’ve written is rubbish, and then deleting it before rewriting, never making any real progress. Or getting 30 or 40k into a novel, deciding it’s terrible and running away from it.

On the one hand I tell myself that I’ve been hopelessly unproductive in the last couple of years. But actually, if I look at it from the point of view of what I’ve achieved, I have four or five half-finished novels to show for that time. Over a hundred and fifty thousand words. And some of them are pretty good, if I say so myself.

In the end, I decided to try something new, a whole new genre, and I started work on a idea that has been brewing at the back of mind for a long time. It’s a romance, set in the Worcestershire countryside where I grew up and it’s full of handsome men, luscious houses, thoroughbred horses and a pair of black swans called Eric and Ernie.

Once again, 35k words in, I had the usual cold feet and started doubting myself. But fortunately, I’m off to the Romantic Novelists Association conference next week and I’m hoping that being around other writers and going to the various workshops will kickstart the novel and that I’ll come back enthused and ready to spend the rest of the summer finishing that crucial first draft.

Wish me luck!

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What I’m writing now

Writers are often advised to pick a literary lane and stay in it.

We’re told readers like us to be consistent and not to veer off down storytelling diversions because the people who buy gritty crime thrillers don’t want their favourite author to chuck in a romance novel occasionally because she felt like writing one.

That means that after I’d written, Death Will Find Me, the first Tessa Kilpatrick novel set in 1920s Edinburgh, I should have written a second and a third and so on. To be fair I probably would have if my then agent had managed to turn that verbal offer from a publisher into an actual contract.

I certainly shouldn’t have allowed myself to be distracted by a shiny new idea and gone off to play with Kate Carpenter and her stolen artworks even though I’m pretty pleased with Don’t Blink and Trace Evidence.

And now, I shouldn’t be letting myself be tempted by thoughts of a Scottish-set police procedural that a publisher has asked me to consider writing. But, I have a main character and an opening to the book and some plot ideas, so maybe I should run with it?

But at least they’re all crime fiction. What I definitely shouldn’t be even going near is the 1950s-set coming-of-age novel that’s been nudging at my elbow for a while. It’s a bit of an outlier—maybe I’d need a pen-name for that?

The second Tessa Kilpatrick is an outline and about 10k words of (very) rough first draft; the third Kate Carpenter stands at about 20,000 slightly more polished words; the police procedural is weighing in at around 15k; and I’m trying to resist the 1950s idea, although there are about 9,000 words of key scenes and a loose outline lurking in my Scrivener projects.

I’m not sure about the argument that writers should find a character or a series and stick with it. That might suit some and I know some very, very successful writers who do just that. But I suspect I’d get bored if it was just me and the same character for the next twenty years, however much I tell myself that my protagonist evolves (they rarely do as much as most writers like to think). Still, most of my ongoing projects are crime fiction and I hope my readers are happy with that.

What I do know though, is the pandemic has been terrible for my ability to focus and that while I don’t need to pick the literary lane I mentioned before, I do at least need to pick a project and finish it! But which one…?

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Yes, I’m still here!

“Don’t forget to update your blog, “ said a friend and I was shocked to look and see that I haven’t written here since the beginning of last year. Given that I’ve been blogging since way back—about 2005, I think—I thought it was a habit I should revive.

But what to blog about given my chronic imposter syndrome and mortal dread of appearing pushy? Fortunately, a few friends have given me suggestions and the best advice I’ve had is to answer the questions that people ask me about writing.

If you have a question, do let me know and I’ll do my best to come up with an interesting and informative answer!

This is just a quick post to get me back in the habit—I’ll be back next week with a proper update about what I’ve been writing in the last 18 months!

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Happy New Year and New Book News

The world heaved an audible sigh of relief as the year turned, I think, collectively looking forward to better days. 2020 was a year where life itself felt far more fragile than usual, a global reminder of our own mortality.

But we got through it, thanks to friends and neighbours and Zoom pub quizzes and banana   bread and Pilates videos and Netflix and an amazing army of key workers from Nurses to delivery drivers who took risks so that we could stay safe.

And now here we are, a bit battered by the storm and slightly frayed at the edges, looking at a shiny new year with a vaccine on its way. Let’s all hold tight and look forward to the spring and summer when we’ll once again hug our loved ones. I’m planning an enormous party for the summer solstice, full of Pimm’s and carousing and hugging and dancing.

I’m also hoping that this year is better from a creative point of view. Back in March, when lockdown started, I had the idea that I could use the time to write, that I would be amazingly productive and that the ideas in my head would find a more tangible form.

As it happened, that wasn’t the case. My concentration has been poor and I’ve been unable to step out of the world enough to inhabit my characters’ story. Poor Kate and the long-suffering Pete have been waiting for me in Glen Coe for months now and Tessa is furious that I keep kicking her next adventure further down the road. And then there are the other ideas currently stuffed into a box-file of post-its and scribbles…

Nonetheless, I have managed to achieve a few things. The prequel to the Kate Carpenter series of art crime novels, Vanishing Point, is on my website as a free ebook to download, but I’ve also added it to Amazon so it can reach a wider audience. I also sent the first in the series, Don’t Blink, to my proofreader because it was edited and almost ready to go but I’d been faffing about and putting it off. And I knuckled down and finished the second, Trace Evidence. Both those books are out now in book and paperback and gathering a few good reviews from book bloggers and so on which is always gratifying.

All in all then, although I keep seeing 2020 as a failure on the writing front, I did manage to do quite a lot – I now have three novels and a novella published. I do need to do more writing this year, partly because I need to keep up momentum on the publishing front but also because I know that I am happier when I’m writing. The general positivity I’m feeling is helping so my first task is to go back to the third Kate Carpenter book. And because I work better with a deadline, dates for my editor and proofreader are in my diary.

Better get to it then – I’ve got a heroine who’s very annoyed that she’s been left shivering on a Scottish mountain for so long.

Take care and all the best for a peaceful and healthy new year. x

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