Literacy 2023: Book 9: The Skeleton Key

Erin Kelly’s mystery/thriller novel inspired by real-life puzzle books and the treasure hunters obsessed with decoding them

The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly

The Golden Bones was a hugely popular art book filled with paintings giving clues to the locations of tiny, jeweled bones buried all across England. The book brought fame and wealth to the artist, but a lifetime of paranoia to his daughter Nell, who’s been stalked, threatened, and attacked by the hunt’s obsessive fans. Now, on the book’s 50th anniversary, there’s a plan to create a modern version of the treasure hunt, launched with a publicity stunt revealing the final bone that had never been found. When the launch goes awry, it ties the family to an actual murder and puts Nell and her family in jeopardy once again.


  • Brilliant concept, building off the real-world existence of Masquerade and, as the author describes it, “the human impulse to uncover secrets”
  • Once it gets moving, it’s extremely compelling. I was up until 3 AM reading it last night, and couldn’t wait until bedtime tonight and had to finish it this morning.
  • Juggles enough complications and revelations and escalations to make it feel as if everything is just on the edge of collapse, but without feeling too overwhelming.
  • Does a good job capturing the style and tone of treasure-hunt and ARG message boards โ€” everyone referring to each other by online handle, and the mix of people fully invested in the subject along those who are perpetually angry at the artists
  • Pitch-perfect depiction of an egomaniacal asshole who is incessantly making cutting remarks, undermining everyone around him and passing it off as affection.
  • One of the major revelations is astonishingly well done. You immediately have to turn back and read an earlier chapter, to see that all the clues were there all along.


  • The depiction of an egomaniacal asshole was vivid enough to reawaken low-grade anxiety about people like that I’ve met in real life.
  • Kind of a stumbling start to the book, as there’s a ton of necessary context that needs to be established, and it all gets thrown together in a bewildering mess of names and events.
  • I just plain don’t like the main character; she’s self-righteous and a hypocrite. People kept pointing out she was being insufferable, and they were right, and she ignored them. There I said it.
  • Not really a “con,” so much as mismanaged expectations on my part: the book is only barely interested in the puzzle-hunt nature of the premise, and is much more of a “Tiny Secret Whispers”-style family drama.

This wasn’t the book that I wanted or expected it to be, but it was surprisingly good at being what it is. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a “can’t put it down” thriller, and this one definitely qualifies. It’s gripping even though there’s very little action or suspense; it’s all plot developments moving everything constantly forward.