Erin Kelly was born in London in 1976 and grew up in Essex. She read English at Warwick University and has been working as a journalist since 1998.She has written for newspapers including the The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Express and magazines including Red, Psychologies, Marie Claire, Elle and Cosmopolitan.
The Poison Tree is a detective story without a policeman, a murder mystery that opens without a body. It’s set in London, in the summer of 1997 when Karen, the narrator, was a naïve student waiting for something to happen. She finds her adventure in the form of Biba Capel, a decadent drama student who lives in a crumbling mansion on the edge of the city with her brother Rex. Karen is drawn into their world of parties, drugs and sex. When an outsider joins the group, threatening her friendship with Biba, she takes refuge in a relationship with Rex. The more she finds out about their family history of tragedy and abandonment, the harder it becomes for her to leave.
The novel opens with Karen, now a brittle, nervous mother, picking Rex up from prison ten years later. We know that he has served life for two murders, but not who was killed. The bulk of the narration is in extended flashback. As the story progresses, it is gradually revealed what happened in the past – but the present day narrative has tensions of its own and it also becomes apparent that the future too is full of secrets, lies and threats.
I can’t remember when the idea for the novel first came to me. I knew that I wanted to write a mystery, but I also wanted to include elements of coming-of-age, Gothic and even romance. I knew that I wanted to write about a certain kind of person – on the cusp of adulthood, passionate, ripe for adventure but not responsible enough to handle the consequences. My favourite books deal with these themes, including The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Likeness by Tana French and The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman. All of the above feature students, as does my novel. I wanted to write about middle-class kids, because the very rich and the very poor already have their lives mapped out for them.
Sense of place is very important to me, perhaps the most important factor of all. I wanted to write about London as it’s my home, and there were so many unknown factors in writing my first novel I wanted to be sure that location, at least, was authentically and authoritatively described. For a long time I had a vague cast of people getting up to no good in a flat in central London, but it didn’t work: the location was too central, not isolated enough. So I switched the action to Highgate, a wealthy, leafy, atmospheric neighbourhood in the north of the city where I lived for a few years. It’s bordered by a huge heath, a famous Victorian cemetery and an imposing viaduct known to the locals as Suicide Bridge. As soon as I housed them in a claustrophobic, tumbledown house on the edge of a wood, the characters snapped into sharp focus.