Erin Kelly has written three novels of psychological suspense, of which this latest is perhaps the most disturbing – and also the one that lays out most clearly the corrosive areas she moves in. Her first two books, The Sick Rose and The Poison Tree borrowed titles from William Blake, but The Burning Air takes on most tellingly Blake’s line about a destructive and dark secret love.
It is a family tradition for the MacBrides to visit Devon each bonfire night, but there is a pall over the latest gathering. The matriarch of the family, Lydia, is dead. Her husband, the customarily sober Rowan (a retired headmaster) is drinking himself into a stupor. The family is in meltdown, with the eldest daughter Sophie watching her marriage crumble, while grandson Jake (who is mixed race) has the police breathing down his neck. But there is one ray of optimism: Felix, Sophie’s brother, has brought along his beautiful new girlfriend Kerry who charms the unhappy family. She appears to be a natural babysitter, and Sophie leaves her baby daughter in her care. But both Kerry and the baby disappear. Has she abducted the baby? Or have both of them been taken? The distraught Sophie turns on her brother, claiming that the missing girl could – for all they know — be some kind of psychopathic monster. And the truth, when it arrives, is shocking.
When even the best writers of standalone novels of suspense are obliged to observe commercial imperatives and adopt continuing characters (most recently, for instance, Nicci French), one can only hope that the talented Kelly is not persuaded by her publisher to write about a series protagonist, be they damaged male detective or alcoholic female forensics specialist. Not that there isn’t plenty of damage at the heart of this book — Blake’s ‘invisible worm’ has been doing his worst in the MacBride family — but the balancing of the very different characters has an intensity similar to that of chamber music, with each player proving as crucial as the last the author has presented for our attention. If Erin Kelly has not quite attained the rarefied psychological astuteness of a Barbara Vine (and if the final revelation is a touch underwhelming), she has proved herself – with three books — to be among the most accomplished and pin-sharp of writers at work in the crime genre, with family dysfunction a speciality. And William Blake can continue be a source of appropriate future titles: ‘Cruelty has a human heart’? ‘Hire a villain’?
The Burning Air by Erin Kelly
Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99
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