A stand-out author of deeply atmospheric psychological thrillers, Erin Kelly is on her way to joining the bestselling ranks of Kate Atkinson and Barbara Vine. Until now, the MacBride family has led a cozy life of upper-class privilege: good looks; tuition-free education at the prestigious private school where their father, Rowan, is headmaster; an altruistic righteousness inherited from their mother, magistrate Lydia. But when the MacBrides gather for the first time since Lydia’s passing at their restored barn in the secluded countryside, the family discovers a stranger in their midst: a stranger who is convinced that Lydia was a murderer—and who has been plotting a spectacular revenge that may shatter their world forever.
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About the Author
What People are Saying About This
Praise for THE POISON TREE:
“A terrific suspense debut, reminiscent of another British woman’s auspicious bow: Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. The shadows gather until the ending looms like a threatening figure. This one gets the writer’s ultimate bit of praise: I wish I had written it.”
“A compelling creeper . . . More please, Ms. Kelly! Quickly!”
—The Washington Post
“There is a brooding sense of impending doom and imminent danger. . . . [T]he explosive ending, its revelations about the threesome and the lengths to which people will go to preserve or take what's theirs, makes THE POISON TREE a rich and satisfying pleasure.”
Reading Group Guide
The MacBride family has long enjoyed a life of upper-class privilege. Lydia is a highly respected magistrate while Rowan is headmaster at the prestigious private school where all of their children enjoy tuition-free education. They are a tight-knit group—some might even say insular to a fault—and so inwardly focused that they don't see danger approaching until it's too late.
When Rowan and his three adult children gather for the first time since Lydia's death at their weekend home, a renovated barn in the English countryside of Devon, long-held secrets are uncovered and a stranger is found hiding in plain sight. A stranger who is convinced that their beloved wife and mother, Lydia, was a murderer—and who has been gathering evidence against the family and exacting a quiet revenge for years. This wolf in sheep's clothing will now threaten the youngest member of the MacBride clan, baby Edie, in a desperate attempt at vengeance.
Erin Kelly conjures characters who get under your skin and stay there. The lines of justice and cruelty become blurred at times, and you find yourself momentarily sympathizing with her villains and questioning the victims as Kelly delivers a chilling dose of moral complexity to the whole tale.
Fans of Sophie Hannah and Kate Atkinson will find The Burning Air—Kelly's most unnerving novel yet—entirely spellbinding.
ABOUT ERIN KELLY
Erin Kelly is the author of acclaimed psychological thrillers The Poison Tree and The Dark Rose. She was born in London and grew up in Essex. She studied English at Warwick University and has written for such publications as The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail, Red, Marie Claire, and Elle (UK). She lives in north London with her family.
A CONVERSATION WITH ERIN KELLY
Q. What are some of your favorite works of suspense fiction?
A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin is a master class in suspense. It's more than sixty years old but as pacy and taut as any contemporary thriller. Like The Burning Air, it deals with identity, privilege, and revenge; and uses multiple points of view and jump-cuts to create that tension. I reread it closely when I was writing this novel.
A Judgement In Stone by Ruth Rendell also deserves a mention as it tells us the "punchline" in the opening lines: we know how the book ends and the suspense lies in discovering how, and why, it happened.
Q. At least two of your novels deal with a powerful family as seen by an outsider. Why do you think you are drawn to exploring this type of family versus the odd man out dynamic?
I'm not sure. My own family is very close, although I like to think that we welcome outsiders with open arms: I do suppose I see blood ties as the only unbreakable bond, and it's interesting to explore what happens when a damaged or vulnerable person insinuates himself into a clan and tries to divide and rule. We have all known a seductive family where glamour and confidence seems to be inherited—and don't we all like to think that even the beautiful people have their own dark secrets to bear?
Q. Your description of the flaming Tar Barrels was a fascinating peek into a little known tradition. Tell us more about this tradition and what drew you to include it.
I wanted to set the kidnap scene against something colorful and dramatic, and Bonfire Night, which falls on November 5 every year, seemed the perfect evening. It's cold, it gets dark early, entire families turn out to watch the fireworks and gather around communal bonfires to burn effigies of Guy Fawkes, a seventeeth-century terrorist who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. I couldn't resist pitting the staged chaos of fire and fireworks against the psychological drama at the heart of the novel.
Originally that section of the novel was set in Lewes, a small town on the south coast of England, where their Guy Fawkes night celebrations are legendary. But as the novel unwound, it became obvious that Lewes, which is only an hour away from London, wasn't remote enough. I needed miles of open country, a place where a family could credibly be cut off from help. I have various books on British heritage, traditions, and festivals (I've always been fascinated by our ancient pagan and Christian rituals—we have literally hundreds of these quirky little traditions) and leafing through one of them I found out about the Tar Barrels. One look at the map—Ottery St Mary is hidden in a remote valley in an untouched corner of the country—and I knew I had my perfect location, and my perfect event.
Like the MacBride family, the event is something solid that can be traced back for generations. No one really knows the origins of the Tar Barrels festival. There are several theories—that it dates back to the time of the Black Death and the smoke from the flaming barrels was used to fumigate the town, or that the original tar barrels were beacons warning of the arrival of the Spanish Armada.
Q. The characters in this novel are fantastically creepy and multidimensional; each has his/her own secret, obsession, or glaring flaw. What is your process for developing such well-rounded and intriguing characters?
I don't have a process as such. I don't do any exercises or write any back story for my characters before beginning the book as I know some authors do—I get to know them as I go along, and often find that the character who makes it onto the printed page is a world away from the one in my earlier draft. (The same process applies to plotting: I don't know what's going to happen until I write it.) It's not a particularly efficient process, but it works for me. I think, and write, in scenes rather than chapters and the characters seem to reveal themselves by their actions.
Spoiler Warning: Don't read any further if you don't want to know whodunit!
Q. Darcy starts out as an underprivileged boy in an unfortunate situation, but quickly grows into a disturbed (and deeply disturbing) young man. His obsession with the MacBride family, and his inability to silence his late mother's goading voice, makes him a formidable foe. While it is possible to have sympathy for him in the beginning, it is difficult to maintain such generosity with someone so loathsome. Do you view Darcy mainly as a villain, or as a victim of circumstance?
I have my own views on Darcy but I'd hate to prejudice the reader's own conclusion—early feedback from British readers suggests that he's a divisive character, much as Biba from The Poison Tree was. But I did enjoy the challenge of sustaining the same voice as he went from victim to perpetrator.
Q. The Burning Air is set in the present day, in a world wired for constant connection. Characters have mobile phones and social media accounts. As a writer of suspense, do you find it more difficult today to create believable circumstances of isolation, such as the remote Far Barn, which is located outside the safety net of cell phone towers?
Modern technology has shifted the parameters but all we need to do is operate within them. We all know that computers and cell phones are fallible—batteries run out, Internet connections are faulty—and these failings can be exploited to dramatic effect. Who hasn't felt the frustration of a phone that diverts to voice mail when the call's recipient is stuck in a tunnel somewhere? It's just the twenty-first-century equivalent of, say, the letter that gets left under the doormat in Tess of the d'Urbervilles.
Even as I wrote the scenes where the phone wires have been cut and the cell phones don't work, I braced myself for criticism and I've already had e-mails from readers who doubt that true isolation exists in 2013. But in fact, much of the book was written in Devon, on a writing retreat at a remote farmhouse and my daily ten-minute walk down a dirt track to call home is testament to the fact that there are still large areas of the UK untouched by the phone masts. These places do exist, but few of us seek them out—and, I suspect, many who do find themselves out of range feel so uneasy that they don't linger long.
Q. What kinds of stories scare you?
I don't scare easily within my own genre, perhaps because even with the best novels I'm still aware of the nuts and bolts of the structure—I can always picture the wizard behind the screen. It's the end-of-the-world stuff that gets me—books that deal with climate change or nuclear fallout. I can't remember a book ever having disturbed me as much as The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I was uneasy for weeks after I read that.
Q. There are (at least) two fantastic twists in this novel, so surprising and yet so logical it's hard to believe it wasn't apparent all along. Do you have a favorite plot twist or surprise ending in fiction or film?
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, which is about a series of murders in post-Stalin Russia, contains a reveal so clever and surprising that I had to put the book down for a few minutes before I could read on. With one word it shocks, thrills, and ties together seemingly irreconcilable strands of the story.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I was drawn into this story from the very beginning. The Burning Air was a family tale told from several different points of views. It starts out from Lydia’s point of view and her writing to herself in a secret diary about an event that she did and how it if possible caused her own sickness by keeping this secret to herself and how her family wouldn’t think of her the way she would want to be remembered if they were to find out. Then the story switches to Sophie, Darcy, Rowan and Kerry point of views. I love books like this because I always wonder what that person would have thought. The author did an excellent job of giving each person their own voice without seeming like you were reading the same thing over but giving you more. They each had their story within the story which gave them a more real feeling as a person. A very good Suspense/Thriller novel.
This novel was recommended at my library. I really enjoyed the read - it captured my attention from the very first page. A lot of twist and turns which kept me intrigued. It also had a message about "secrets" and what they can do to relationships and families. All in all it was a good read.
A prominent and closely knit family must face the consequences of past secrets, learn to deal with the events that unfold in the present. The story opens as the terminally ill matriarch of the MacBride family unloads her guilt for actions she took in her past in her daily journal, never intending for anyone to ever see it, unaware that those actions have been the basis for a long-planned, twisted revenge against her family. The events that unfold after her death may tear her family apart, damaging the innocent the most. Will they do what they usually do and twist events to their own version of reality? This darkly written English suspense novel is an emotional tale written with overlapping timelines, different POVs, stripping the facade of the 'perfect family' to the bone. Each character has their own demons to deal with, their own glaring flaws they attempt to hide. One twisted individual is plotting against the family, obsessed with bringing them to their knees. Their plans for revenge have fermented and grown over the years and finally come to an explosive fruition, but not necessarily a positive final outcome. If you enjoy a good suspense novel that is gritty and so convoluted that you cannot even imagine the conclusion, I strongly recommend this book! This edition was provided by NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP Viking in exchange for an honest review.
Excellent read. I recommend it.
Hard to put down
A thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat.