‘The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton’ by Elizabeth Speller

This is the second novel to feature First World War veteran and amateur detective Laurence Bertram, after his first appearance in The Return of Captain John Emmett.

Like its predecessor, this novel is ostensibly a mystery novel, but that element is the engine to drive a story which is about more, a meditation on the lingering aftermath of the First World War, about the way that tragedy can overshadow entire lives and, with mazes and labyrinths as a recurring metaphor, how people become trapped in patterns of both their own, and other’s making.

As a consequence the plot may not rattle along rapidly enough to satisfy a reader looking for a rapid fire thriller, but for those wanting a little more to think about on the way, there’s a lot to savour.

Bartram, now a schoolmaster and expert in church architectural history, is invited to Easton Deadall by his friend Bolitho who is installing a memorial window in the church.  There, Bartram enters a fading country house, and a family overshadowed by the disappearance, several years before, of the 5 year old Kitty Easton, heir to the estate.

Lydia, Kitty’s mother is in frail health, and the rest of the family live on tiptoes, fearing to challenge her belief that her daughter is still alive somewhere, and that her dead husband was a war hero.

When an unknown woman is discovered murdered in the church, Bartram is absorbed into the investigation of who she was and how she got there, uncovering more Easton family secrets along the way.

In his role as familiar outsider, Bartram understands the Edwardian mores which require the keeping of shameful secrets of unhappy marriages and of wartime cowardice, and the ambivalent attitudes to the estate workers and domestic staff, not quite the equals of the landowners, but without whom now the family knows it cannot function.

The novel is also about Bartram’s slow recovery from his wartime experiences and the loss of his wife and daughter, and his first forays out into the wider world, so that at the end we see him heading off to Italy as a tutor to a wealthy family.  Here’s hoping more drama will await him there, even if that does mean limited life expectancy for someone close by(!)

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