Erin Kelly ~ The Skeleton Key
Summer, 2021. Nell has come home at her family’s insistence to celebrate an anniversary. Fifty years ago, her father wrote The Golden Bones. Part picture book, part treasure hunt, Sir Frank Churcher created a fairy story about Elinore, a murdered woman whose skeleton was scattered all over England. Clues and puzzles in the pages of The Golden Bones led readers to seven sites where jewels were buried – gold and precious stones, each a different part of a skeleton. One by one, the tiny golden bones were dug up until only Elinore’s pelvis remained hidden.
The book was a sensation. A community of treasure hunters called the Bonehunters formed, in frenzied competition, obsessed to a dangerous degree. People sold their homes to travel to England and search for Elinore. Marriages broke down as the quest consumed people. A man died. The book made Frank a rich man. Stalked by fans who could not tell fantasy from reality, his daughter, Nell, became a recluse.
But now the Churchers must be reunited. The book is being reissued along with a new treasure hunt and a documentary crew are charting everything that follows. Nell is appalled, and terrified. During the filming, Frank finally reveals the whereabouts of the missing golden bone. And then all hell breaks loose.
Having spent my childhood with puzzle books, finding clues in beautiful illustrations, this book immediately appealed to me. I was unaware of the history, but would definitely have been swept up in the chaotic concept of a treasure hunt.
Told in a dual timeline, the NetGalley format does make it hard to work out where we are in time; it’s also tricky to understand how old characters are at any given time. Considering the role many of them play in the events, this is crucial to ensure credibility of their activities.
Characters are varied, if not relatable. All of them are pretty despicable and easy to dislike. Even Nell is trying to hard to show she’s ‘different’ from her family. Her relationship with Billie is lovely and there are few books showing this kind of ‘family’; the current trend for living on a boat is also one that is only recently being explored and adds a new dynamic to the well-trod backdrop of London.
The Skeleton Key is the kind of book that needs to be reread to make sense of the plot, as clues given are not immediately clear in their narrative, so when reveals occur, the reader may question the language used. Again, the NetGalley format makes this harder as words are in the wrong place. It’s also billed as a thriller, but feels more like a dramatic, family saga as there’s no real sense of anticipation or foreboding.
Overall it’s a great story, with enough mystery and intrigue to keep readers engrossed. Is it believable? Yes and no. There are people in this world who get obsessive over certain activities and events, but the idea that a drunken person can create an entire illustrated book with clues in one night, less so. There are also a few references that seem to be dated wrongly, but no doubt these will be picked up by the editors.
Full of mystery, intrigue and logic problems, this will have readers reaching for their old puzzle books and perhaps inspire others to create new ones.
Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for my NetGalley copy of this book. Opinions my own.