REVIEW!!! The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown

Image Description: The cover of The Key in the Lock has a floorplan of a house in gold against a dark blue-green floral background. The title, with the image of a key in gold, is in the centre.

I still dream, every night, of Polneath on fire. Smoke unfurling out of an upper window and a hectic orange light cascading across the terrace.”

By day, Ivy Boscawen mourns the loss of her son Tim in the Great War. But by night she mourns another boy – one whose death decades ago haunts her still.

For Ivy is sure that there is more to what happened all those years ago: the fire at the Great House, and the terrible events that came after. A truth she must uncover, if she is ever to be free.

Set over two timelines, Beth Underdown’s The Key in the Lock is a gloriously gothic mystery with shades of a psychological thriller and a setting reminiscent of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

The year is 1918 and Ivy Boscawen is grieving, both for the loss of her son Tim in the trenches – and for the loss of the life she was meant to have. Both losses seem, to Ivy, like retribution for another death: that of young William Tremain, killed in a fire at Polneath House thirty years previously. Ivy’s belief in that the boy was murdered – and her attempts to prove it – led to events that, years later, continue to haunt Ivy. And only by discovering the truth of what really happened will she be able to lay the ghosts of both the past and the present to rest.

Beth Underdown has written a haunting and evocative novel effectively told across two timelines, each of which provides a compulsive storyline populated with a host of believably fallible characters.

Although the novel takes a while to hit its stride, unravelling the mysteries of Polneath and making the connections between Ivy’s past and present kept me really engaged with both storylines – and, as more secrets are revealed, the tension really ramps up. By the end, I was eagerly turning the pages to make the final connections and work out what really happened at Polneath all those years ago – and what ramifications that has for Ivy as she processes her son’s death.

Ivy’s grief was sensitively handled, and her heartbreak really came across through the pages. I also felt that the relationship between Ivy and her husband, Richard, was brilliantly portrayed and bittersweet. The conflict that Ivy feels when Edward, the man Ivy fell in love with back at Polneath all those years ago, comes back into her life is also really well handled. Indeed, Ivy is a wonderfully flawed protagonist – determined, brave, and intelligent, albeit a little misguided and, when we meet her in 1888, blissfully naïve.

I did have one or two minor quibbles – a couple of the characters felt a little too obviously ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and, sure enough, it turns out that appearances can be deceptive. I also found some of Ivy’s decisions a little hard to fathom at times – although, admittedly, I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as besotted as Ivy is!

Overall, however, The Key in the Lock is an atmospheric and compulsively readable historical mystery that will keep you guessing right up until the end. It made for a fantastic start to my reading year and is sure to appeal to fans of Diane Setterfield, Elizabeth Macneal, and Stacey Halls.

The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown is published by Penguin Viking on 13 January 2022 and is available to pre-order now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones,, and Wordery.

My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley UK for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

If you decide to pick up any of today’s titles, please consider supporting a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

One thought on “REVIEW!!! The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown

  1. Excellent review, Amy! I had mixed thoughts on this book as some things lacked clarity and I thought the dual timelines were poorly executed, but Ivy was a brilliantly written main character.


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