Fresh Blood

Name: Erin Kelly

Title of Book: The Poison Tree

'...a sumptuous feast of the senses...'

It is the summer of 1997. Britain has started its love affair with the new Prime Minister when tragedy strikes and one of the most beloved women of all time is killed in an accident in Paris. As events in Britain unfold and a tumult of emotion flows from the British public, other events are happening, events that wonít start an outpouring of grief from the nation, but will have consequences that will echo down the years to the present day for those involved.

It looked as though it was going to be a dull summer as Karen wondered what she was going to do with herself. All through her university years she had lived in Suburban comfort with her three girlfriends, a boring boyfriend and studying for her straight-A pass. It is only when she meets Biba that Karen finally begin to enjoy the fruits of being young and free. As the summer progresses and Karen moves in to the large house in Highgate with Biba and her brother, Rex does Karen realise that living with such an unpredictable personality like Biba can have its drawbacks as well as its advantages. Very soon, as the bouquets mount up at Kensington Palace in tribute to a Princess snatched away from her admiring public, Karen is soon caught up in her own drama Ė one that will not change Britain but will have repercussions for her for many years to come.

And now, years later Rex is out of prison and is trying to cope with life outside four walls and living again with Karen and their daughter, Alice. But not everything is all rosy when Karen begins to get mysterious phone calls Ė calls where nobody speaks on the other end of the line. And then one night the voice mutters something that threatens to bring Karenís life crashing down around her and flings her back to that hot summer where the idyll suddenly died.

The year 1997 is one of those years that will never be forgotten by the people who were there. Tony Blair had just thrown the Tories out of No. 10 and just as the love was flourishing another, even stronger love was snuffed out. Ask anyone, and they will have that ĎJFKí moment, when they know exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Diana, Princess of Wales had been killed in a car crash. I will always remember all the radio stations being silent in her honour. Building The Poison Tree around the summer of such startling events is extremely clever on the writerís part as it brings to the fore of the reader powerful emotions that are conjured up by the wonderful writing and detailed descriptions.

The author is very knowledgeable about London and its geography and obviously, through the writing, her love of the City is paramount. I loved the fact that the house in Queenswood Lane despite being in the centre of London, feels slightly out of a fairy tale with its enchanted wood surrounding it. For me this worked because it wasnít just another house in the City, but a rambling old mansion house tucked away, forgotten almost in a pocket of London that people donít normally see. And I enjoyed the way the author makes the house very much Ďone of the charactersí in the novel.

The insufferable Biba - childlike, exasperating, totally unreliable and annoying in different measures, is obviously the catalyst for all that transpires. The author is able to explain Biba's shallow personality by making her an actress (weíve all known one at some time or other) and giving her an artistic background. Her relentless unreliability is exacerbated by her brotherís over-protectiveness. But despite her downfalls, Kelly also manages to make Biba exciting, enigmatic, assured of her own sexuality and sensuality and ultimately a ticking time bomb!

The Poison Tree isnít one of those novels you can rush. You must bathe in its luxurious prose Ė drift off as if lying in a scented bath, back to the summer of 1997 and there taste the words that describe the heat, Karenís newfound awareness of youth, the loss of youth and the ultimate loss of the country of another young mother. It all adds up to a sumptuous feast of the senses, one like the veritable box of chocolates - each one must be relished and never rushed.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) How would you classify your writing, and do you consciously try to write to a certain style or genre?
If Iíd tried to aim at a particular section of the market Iíd have been paralysed by anxiety. If anything, I tried to write the kind of books my friends and I like to read.
2) What type of crime novels do you like to read? Do you prefer series or standalone?
I like well-written crime with a psychological edge. I like series which do something different every time; for example, Kate Atkinsonís ex-private eye Jackson Brodie is a completely compelling character who Iíve enjoyed following around different cities and situations. And Tana French writes about Dublin, but from the point of view of different detectives in the same murder squad, which gives her books unique depth and breadth.

And Iíll never miss one of Ruth Rendellís Chief Inspector Wexford novels. Her sleight of hand, highlighting contemporary issues by slipping them seamlessly into the plot, is impressive. I re-read some old Wexfords recently, and it was like a social history of England.
3) ĎThe Poison Treeí is set in the present day and in the mid-nineties. You make certain references to the time when mentioning Tony Blair and Britainís love affair with its new Prime Minister. Was there a particular reason you based the main part of your story during this time period?
I just wrote about what I knew; Iím around the same age as my narrator, Karen. As a first-time novelist, there are so many insecurities Ė am I doing that right? Does this work? Ė that I wanted the confidence of knowing I had at least one aspect of the book spot-on.
4) You make many references to London, its geography and many attractions. You appear to be in love with the city, something which permeates your writing. Is this the case?
Iíve lived here long enough to fall in and out of love with London several times. It can be an amazing city or an awful one, usually depending on how much money is in the bank. Karen romanticises her little corner of London as only a 20-year-old can. Sheís oblivious to the cityís gritty underbelly Ė although she comes to realise that murder isnít confined to dark alleyways in dodgy postcodes.
5) The house in Queenswood Lane is very vivid and is just as much a character as the people who populate ĎThe Poison Treeí. P.D. James has always said that the location is as important to her as the people who are in her novels. Do you have the same feeling - and is there a real place that you based the house in your novel?
I absolutely agree. In fact, to begin with, the house was based on my old flat in Wimpole Street in the West End of London; it remains notorious for its fabulous parties and its blithe disregard for health and safety, so I drew on that when conjuring Rex and Bibaís house. But a city setting just didnít work; it wasnít remote enough, wasnít claustrophobic enough to induce that kind of creeping madness. I turned my attention to the neighbourhood I was living in when I began to write, on the border of Queenís Wood. I used to walk there most days; the street in my story is based on Wood Lane, N6. As soon as I transplanted my big old city house into the trees, the story took off.
6) You have been compared to Barbara Vine and Sophie Hannah. At times it definitely felt like I was ready an early Vine novel. How do you feel about these comparisons and have you read either authorís work?
Iíve read both extensively and of course itís hugely flattering to be mentioned in the same paragraph as either of them. Structurally, Iíve been hugely influenced by Barbara Vine. Most of my favourite books include some element of the past coming back to haunt the future, and I think sheís the mistress of this particular theme. As for Sophie Hannah, Iím in awe of the agility with which she writes. She juggles multiple narratives so quickly that itís impossible to tell who you can trust until the last page.
7) Do you feel that being a journalist has given you more of an insight into other peopleís lives? During interviews did you Ďsquirrel awayí little gems from your interviewees to use in your novel?
Actually, Iím more inspired by people I donít meet. A snapshot of someoneís life Ė an overheard conversation on the bus, five minutes of a documentary Ė is far more likely to create a character than someone Iíve spoken to in depth. The bigger the gap, the more room my imagination has to play.
8) Many authors draw on their personal experiences to give depth and insight into the characters and their feelings, hopes and desires. Is this something you have conscientiously done or avoided doing, preferring rather to use your imagination?
Iím sure I have, but it isnít a conscious process.
9) Who would be your dream cast of movie actors for an adaptation of your story?
I donít know about actors, but I swear I saw Rex, one of my characters, get on my tube carriage the other day. This boy looked exactly as Iíd imagined Rex. Perhaps we could track him down and persuade him to perform?
10) Without giving away the plot, which book included your favourite plot twist of all time?
Itís so good itís almost a clichť, but I was about 11 the first time I read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, and was so shocked that I dropped the book. It was a revelation to know that writers could do that to their readers.
11) What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
I loved The Talented Mr Ripley, on page and screen.
12) Would you describe yourself as a crime fiction fan in general and, if so, which authors do you most admire and why?
Iím a book buff rather than a crime buff but once I find a writer I like, I chain-read their entire oeuvre. The last time this happened was with Louise Welsh. Her books make you shiver. I went through a real Scottish phase about two years ago; it was back-to-back Rankin and McDermid for weeks.
13) What is your favourite read crime of all time?
Thatís impossible to choose, so Iíll share the most recent. I donít know if it counts as crime but William Boydís Ordinary Thunderstorms was hugely exciting and had a body count, so thatís good enough for me. The prose is as dazzling as the plot.