Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: Gothic, mystery, suspense, thriller
Published by Mobius on January 24, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org, Better World Books
A reunion leads to tragedy, and the unravelling of dark family secrets . . .
It is the summer of 2021 and Nell has come home at her family's insistence to celebrate an anniversary. Her father, Sir Frank Churcher, is regarded as a cult figure by many. Fifty years ago he wrote The Golden Bones. Part picture book, part treasure hunt, it was a fairy story about Elinore, a murdered woman whose skeleton was scattered all over England. Clues and puzzles in the pages of TheGolden Bones led readers to seven sites were 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. And it ruined Nell's life.
But Sir Frank has reunited the Churchers for a very particular reason. The book is being reissued, along with a new treasure hunt and a documentary crew are charting the anniversary. Nell is appalled, and fearful. During the filming, Frank finally reveals the whereabouts of the missing golden bone. And then all hell breaks loose.
From the bestselling author of He Said/She Said and Watch Her Fall, this is a taut, mesmerising novel about a daughter haunted by her father's legacy . . .
“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive,’ is already deceptive – as it turns out are ALL the members of the combined, misaligned, co-dependent Churcher and Lally families.
The saying is deceptive because it sounds so much like Shakespeare – but it isn’t. It’s a quote from Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion that is OFTEN attributed to the Bard. The many, many interwoven deceptions of the Churcher and Lally families are a whole lot more intertwined – and that much more difficult to untangle.
The Skeleton Key begins in the summer of 2021, just barely post-pandemic – or at least post the pandemic lockdowns, which adds a whole ‘other layer to pretty much everything. Frank Churcher, now in his 70s and starting to feel his age, has decided to have one last hurrah over the thing that made him famous 50 years ago and is still wrecking the lives of his entire family – even as it made their privileged lifestyle possible.
Frank, now Sir Frank, created an armchair treasure hunt puzzle phenomenon combining creepy, Celtic myths and a touch of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with gorgeous imagery into a book titled The Golden Bones. It wasn’t just a best-seller, it became a worldwide obsession. An obsession that some people still haven’t gotten over.
One of those people is his daughter Nell. Not that she was obsessed with The Golden Bones, but that more than a few of the fanatics who called themselves Bonehunters conflated the woman in the story, Elinor, with Frank’s daughter Eleanor and stalked her. With knives.
The prize of The Golden Bones was a literal set of golden bones which were worth lots of money to motivated – or crazed – Bonehunters. By the time Eleanor was 15, all the bones had been found except one – the pelvic girdle. As obsessions and conspiracy theories went, the idea that Eleanor’s pelvic bone was actually Elinor’s pelvic bone wasn’t that far a stretch. At least not for someone who had lost touch with reality.
Eleanor, who is now reaching middle age, left her family behind with all its messiness – including Frank Churcher’s massive ego. She still sees them, but she’s steadfastly refused any money or help no matter how much she might need it. She owns a narrowboat and lives on England’s waterways with a surrogate daughter she’d adopt if she could. Her living situation can sometimes be a bit dicey but it’s safer away from her family’s mess and the media spotlight that seldom leaves them alone for long.
But the 50th Anniversary celebration of The Golden Bones brings Nell back home – if only for the celebration itself. Frank was supposed to retrieve that last piece of the original skeleton from a tree behind the house. He does uncover a pelvic girdle, but not the tiny jeweled piece that was part of the original prize skeleton. What comes out of that tree hollow is a real human pelvis from a long-dead woman who is about to unravel all the secrets that everyone has been keeping for more than 50 years.
Those revelations and the events that precede them will melt the thin ice of Nell’s precarious safety. She’s never really been safe. She just didn’t know how unstable the web of lies that kept her family afloat truly was.
Escape Rating A: It’s all too easy to comprehend the obsessions of the ‘Bonehunters’ while reading The Skeleton Key, because the complex, twisted nature of the puzzle – and the people at its heart – sinks its teeth into the reader and does not let go until the end.
Two things to start. First, the concept of The Golden Bones may sound vaguely familiar – and that’s intentional on the part of the author and acknowledged at the beginning. There was a real, worldwide craze for armchair treasure hunt books in the 1980s, kicked off by the publication of the massively illustrated puzzle/story book Masquerade by Kit Williams in 1979. Plenty of people got obsessed with Masquerade and the imitations that followed in its wake, and there was a scandal around the solution to the puzzle. Not a murderous scandal, but a scandal nevertheless.
Second thing is that even from the beginning of the story, it’s pretty obvious that there are multiples of things wrong in this semi-combined, utterly co-dependent, joined at the hip double household. It’s tempting to say that the family is a hot mess, but even from the initial glimpses we get into the family dynamic it’s all too clear that a hot mess would actually be a step up. The Churchers and the Lallys are not putting the fun in dysfunctional, but there’s plenty of dysfunction to go around.
We see this family through Nell’s adult eyes as she observes these people she knows, loves and even sometimes hates through a perspective that is not exactly that of an outsider but still has more than a bit of distance. They may not recognize that the family is not healthy, but she knows that living in their midst is not healthy for her and never has been. That her parents named her after the dead woman in their famous story and never even thought that it might inspire the crazies is just the tip of a very ugly iceberg of parents behaving very badly indeed.
Because, as we see the incidents in the past that brought them all to this mixed-up present, the center point of the family is Frank Churcher and his ego – and he’s never cared or taken care of anyone but himself. Everyone else just enables him and lives off the proceeds – whether they see it or not.
And what Frank is, at the center of that massive ego, is rotten to the core. And that his rot has seeped into all of them. The best thing Nell ever did was to walk away. And it’s the best thing she can do now, too. Even if she has to let herself be smeared with just a little bit of that rot to escape from the rest.
While it is easy – and cathartic and filled with oodles of schadenfreude – to get caught up in The Skeleton Key for its story of rich people behaving very badly indeed, what made it fascinating for this reader was the way that the story wove backwards and forwards in time to reveal that everything that existed between all of them was founded on a web of lies that burned away once the truths started coming out – leaving them all blinking in the light of an unforgiving new day.
Just as I sat blinking when I turned the last page, because WOW! what a ride!