I know Erin Kelly can write a good thriller; she already did with 2011’s Poison Tree—a book that was sometimes so dark, I had to put it down and watch something silly like The Golden Girls for an hour. Not that I’m complaining. If there’s one thing you know about me, it’s that I love eerie stuff, especially when it’s done as well as it is in Kelly’s most recent opus, The Dark Rose.
The Dark Rose (or The Sick Rose in Britain) is a gradually revealed mystery that follows two characters: nineteen-year-old Paul and middle-aged Louisa. It’s a toss-up who has more baggage. Paul, once a hopeful youth who dreamt of becoming a teacher, witnessed his best buddy kill someone; now, he’s been put into the English version of Witness Protection until the trial, when he will be the star witness.
Louisa’s story isn’t as clear. We know she did something bad when she was around Paul’s age, but we don’t know what—which is obviously part of the fun. The two characters meet at a crumbling Elizabethan garden, where they work together to bring the garden back to its former glory. Paul reminds Louisa of a face from her past (which adds to her mystery), and surprisingly, they strike up a not so innocent relationship that could ruin or redeem them both.
Just like The Poison Tree, The Dark Rose jumps around in time—a lot. In the hands of a lesser author, this would be jarring. In the masterful hands of Kelly, it flows seamlessly toward a climactic conclusion. From 1989 to 2009 (with occasional stops in between), we see how the characters of Paul and Louisa end up at the garden. We see how they became who they are and why Paul fears the sight of blood.
Blood? Yes, blood. Although The Dark Rose might be a story of romance and redemption, it is more so a story of death. The first actual death we see is that of Paul’s father in one of the many trips from the present to the past. This scene (gulp) still makes me sick just thinking about it.
That’s the funny thing about Erin Kelly. On one page, she perfectly paints the peaceful picture of an early morning in England or a snowy day in mid-winter. On the next, there’s blood spurting everywhere. It’s amazing how quickly she can switch gears; it is a testament to her strength as a writer and storyteller.
You’re not going to know what happened back in 1989 until the end of The Dark Rose. You’re not going to figure the whole thing out until the last page—which is excellent. Kelly never says too much, but she leaves her reader fulfilled every time. She has a steady hand with mystery writing, but not in the clichéd way of the usual who-dunnit. Kelly’s mystery exists mainly in the heads of her characters. They create their own crimes. They create their own prisons. They also create their own vindication … although I doubt it’ll be in the way you expect.
If you want a beautifully written, fantastically freaky psychological thriller, look no further than Erin Kelly’s The Dark Rose. It’ll keep you up at night, and it might haunt your dreams.