Author of the Month

Name: Erin Kelly

First Novel: The Poison Tree

Most Recent Book: Stone Mothers

'...Rendell herself would have given this novel her seal of approval...'

'The Victorians used to call their mental hospitals stone mothers,' I say. 'They thought the design of the building could literally nurse the sick back to health.'

Marianne grew up in the shadow of the old asylum, a place that still haunts her dreams. She was seventeen when she fled the town, her family, her boyfriend Jesse and the body they buried. Now, forced to return, she can feel the past closing around her. And Jesse, who never forgave her for leaving, is threatening to expose the truth.

Marianne will do anything to protect the life she's built; the husband and daughter who must never know.

Even if it means turning to her worst enemy...

But Marianne may not know the whole story - and she isn't the only one with secrets they'd kill to keep.

Whenever we meet, Erin and I have had several conversations about our mutual admiration for Ruth Rendell, especially her Vine books. In ‘Stone Mothers’ you can feel that influence seeping into Kelly’s story, although the writing is Kelly’s own. The crumbling, spooky monument that is Nazareth Asylum is something that would not look out of place on the Rendell/Vine landscape. If anything, Nazareth is more a character in the book, a looming, haunting presence that affects all three of the main protagonists in ‘Stone Mothers’.

All are running away from an event that brought Marianne, Jesse and Helen together, ending in a night of madness – fitting in a place where people have been held, some against their will for reasons that today we would believe were inhumane.

Kelly is marvellous at making those populating her novel fully rounded and three-dimensional. She delivers them in a black and white scenario, but as Kelly’s story develops, we realise there is a lot of grey and that those judged harshly are maybe not as bad as first thought as their personal demons are unveiled and faced head on. Helen in particular, where this story is concerned.

Nothing and nobody are cut and dried here. Each one shifts due to their circumstances and changes their skin like a chameleon, so you are never quite sure you can trust what you see at face value. To my mind, Helen was the most developed and intriguing. A member of The House of Lords, her introduction shows her as reticent to engage, hardened. By the end I wondered if she too, despite her iron exterior, (there are similarities to Mrs. T!), if Helen is not also worn away by this secret that hangs round her neck like the proverbial albatross. I felt her actions toward the end of the novel could be seen as noble, but then again, were they for her own benefit? Again, we have that mist of grey…

Erin takes us on a journey, through the present, back to 1987 and then further to 1958. As with an onion, Kelly peels back each delicate layer upon layer to expose the fibrous root of how yesteryear can still have ramifications on the present. Detailing traumatic scenes inside Nazareth, it is all quite horrifying and you can only be thankful that we have come so far forward with understanding – although we still have some way to go – mental health issues.

I am sure, if she had been alive today that Rendell herself would have given this novel her seal of approval and be pleased that the psychological novel she made her own, is in the safe hands of Erin Kelly.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) How did you get to hear about the Stone Mothers? What was it about them that fascinated you to place an asylum in the centre of your story?
I’ve always found derelict buildings very evocative and inspirational, but this book sprang into life when a friend went exploring in a disused mental hospital in Kent. She found filing cabinets full of old medical records with incredibly intimate and sometimes incriminating information about patients, many of whom would still be relatively young. She’s a nurse, so she knew what to do with them, but I remember thinking that in the wrong hands that information could be devastating – and my story was born.

I didn’t know the Victorians used to call their mental hospitals ‘Stone Mothers’ until I was researching the novel and came across the phrase in Barbara Taylor’s brilliant, terrifying memoir The Last Asylum. As mothers – distant mothers, smothering mothers and reluctant mothers - are a big part of the book, the phrase made the perfect title.
2) ‘Stone Mothers’ involves Jesse, Helen and Marianne and events unfold when Marianne has to come back to Nusstead for personal reasons. Do you enjoy playing with the dynamics of your characters, to bring to a simple relationship a sense of menace?
Yes, I do. I think the best crime fiction is about relationships, about dialogue and history and conflicting needs. That can be childhood sweethearts like Marianne and Jesse versus their sworn enemy Helen or in procedural fiction it’s the interview in the police cells. Story magic happens when two people want different things, and they will both stop at nothing to get it.
3) Your novels involve, as in ‘Stone Mothers’, going back in time. Do you believe our past defines us, especially with murder when the ripples of such a crime cannot be shaken off by those involved, whether innocent or guilty?
Yes and no. Of course murderers must always be held to account but the passage of time does change a person. I look back on my own youth and it feels like a different person. On a story level, a plot strand in the past is a real gift: it lets the writer jump-cut to a different time and place, which is a cheap trick but an incredibly effective way of creating suspense.
4) Keeping with the previous question, Helen Greenlaw seems quite capable of compartmentalizing her guilt. Helen is a fascinating character. Did you enjoy making her a member of parliament considering the current level of media coverage individual parliamentarians, who seem to be enjoying their fifteen minutes in the spotlight, are getting at the moment?
I had the idea for the book years ago, before UK politics descended into farce. I made Helen an MP just because she needed the kind of career that was all about responsibility and honour. In some industries you can bounce back from scandal but an MP is only as good as their reputation. Or so I believed when I wrote the book. Judging by the bunch of clowns currently in the Commons you can do what you like with no accountability. My idea that an MPs career could be ruined by past misdemeanours seems quite quaint and old-fashioned now!
5) We have discussed our mutual fan love for Ruth Rendell and there is certainly a sense of her alter-ego, Barbara Vine within ‘Stone Mothers’. Is this deliberate?
It sounds a strange thing to say about someone I never met, but I think of Ruth Rendell as my mentor: I have read and re-read her books so often that they became part of my DNA, and of course there are elements of the Vines in particular that leak into my own books; usually set partly in the past, quite gothic, with a strong sense of place. Certainly my first novel, ‘The Poison Tree’ treads very faithfully in the footsteps of books like ‘The House of Stairs’ and ‘A Fatal Inversion’. There are other influences too, of course - Du Maurier, Highsmith, Tartt, McEwan and more recently our mutual friend, Celia Fremlin – but with every book my own voice grows stronger.
6) You have now written six psychological novels, a Broadchurch novel and short stories. What one piece of advice would you give to anyone attempting their first novel?
Read, read, read. Get the books you love and study them: take them apart to see how they work, almost like a mechanic would dismantle an engine. I did this at the beginning of my career with two early Nicci French classics, ‘Secret Smile’ and ‘Killing Me Softly.’ I’d think about why a certain viewpoint had been chosen (or not chosen), which information had been given to the reader and how that differed with what the characters knew. There are dozens of ‘how to write’ books out there, but the real secrets are in the novels themselves.
7) We know you are a fan of crime fiction, but which three crime novels would you like with you if stranded on a desert island?
That is such an unfair question! I’d probably take ‘No Night Is Too Long’, which is my favourite Barbara Vine novel. Any of Mick Herron’s Slough House novels – this series has plots you want to race through but prose that makes you linger, which is my favourite combination in a book – and Jake Arnott’s ‘Truecrime’ trilogy. Technically that’s more than three books but what can I say? Never trust a crime writer…