The Burning Air, By Erin Kelly. Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99


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The Independent Culture

Erin Kelly has written three novels of psychological suspense. This latest is perhaps the most disturbing – and also the one that lays out most clearly the corrosive areas in which she moves. Her previous books, The Sick Rose and The Poison Tree, borrowed titles from William Blake, but The Burning Air takes on most tellingly Blake's line about a dark, destructive secret love.

It is a family tradition for the MacBrides to visit Devon each bonfire night, but there is a pall over the latest gathering. The matriarch of the family, Lydia, is dead. Her husband, the customarily sober Rowan is drinking himself into a stupor. The family is in meltdown, with eldest daughter Sophie watching her marriage crumble, while mixed-race grandson Jake has the police breathing down his neck.

But there is one ray of optimism: Felix, Sophie's brother, has brought along his beautiful new girlfriend Kerry, who charms the unhappy family. She appears to be a natural babysitter, and Sophie leaves her baby daughter in her care. Both Kerry and the baby disappear. Has she abducted the baby? Or have both been taken? The distraught Sophie turns on her brother, claiming the missing girl could be some kind of psychopathic monster. And the truth, when it arrives, is shocking.

Blake's "invisible worm" has been doing its worst in the MacBride family. But the balancing of very different characters has an intensity similar to that of chamber music, with each player proving as crucial as the last one.

When even the best writers of standalone novels of suspense are obliged to observe commercial imperatives and adopt continuing characters, one can only hope that Kelly is not persuaded to write about a series protagonist. If it has not quite attained the rarefied psychological astuteness of a Barbara Vine, and if the final revelation in The Burning Air is a touch underwhelming, she has proved herself – with three books – to be among the most accomplished and pin-sharp of writers at work in the crime genre.