The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by Elizabeth Speller

Kitty Easton I first met Laurence Bartram two years ago when I read The Return of Captain John Emmett, a mystery novel set in 1920s England. The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton is the sequel. In this book, Laurence’s friend William Bolitho, an architect, has asked Laurence to join him in the village of Easton Deadall. Easton Deadall lost many of its young men in the First World War and William has agreed to design a memorial window for the small church at Easton Hall. As an expert on churches and their renovations, Laurence’s help and advice is needed.

During the journey to Easton Deadall, Laurence learns about the disappearance of Digby and Lydia Easton’s five-year-old daughter, Kitty, several years earlier. Kitty went missing from her bed one night but her body was never found and her fate is still unknown. Since Kitty’s disappearance, the Easton family have continued to suffer; Digby was killed in the war, Lydia has become seriously ill and the relationship between Digby’s two surviving brothers, Julian and Patrick, is strained and tense.

After a slow start in which Elizabeth Speller introduces us to the characters, describes their tragic history and paints a portrait of a small English village trying to recover from the devastation of war, a mystery begins to develop. Another child disappears on a family trip to London to see the British Empire Exhibition and when a murder is committed in Easton Deadall, Laurence is sure both of these incidents are connected to the disappearance of Kitty Easton all those years ago.

I enjoyed this book almost as much as the previous one. The plot was well constructed with some interesting twists and lots of family secrets that are slowly revealed to the reader, but although I’ve referred to the book as a ‘mystery novel’ once or twice in this post, and in many ways it is a mystery novel, it’s also much more than that. The fate of Kitty Easton really only forms a small part of the story.

While reading both of the Laurence Bartram books, I have been impressed by the amazing sense of time and place the author creates. These books don’t just feel like pieces of historical fiction written in the modern day and set in the past – they almost feel as if they could really have been written in the 1920s. As with The Return of Captain John Emmett, my favourite thing about this book was the way it explores so many different aspects of the Great War and reminds us that although the war may have ended in 1918, its consequences were still being felt all over the world for many years afterwards.

There are lots of interesting characters to get to know too (I was particularly intrigued by the story of the youngest Easton brother, Patrick, resented by his family for abandoning them during the war after being excused from fighting on health grounds). The only thing that disappointed me slightly was that until we reach the final chapters of the book, Laurence seems to be on the outside watching and observing rather than taking an active role in the story. I do like Laurence but as the central character of a series I find him a bit bland and it would be nice to see his own personality coming through more strongly.

The way this book ended leaves plenty of scope for a third in the series and I hope there is going to be another one, though I notice that Elizabeth Speller has a new book due out in November with different characters, set during the Battle of the Somme.

The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller

When Captain John Emmett returns from France at the end of World War I, his mother and sister are worried about his mental condition. John is suffering from shell-shock, which is causing him to become aggressive and violent. After spending some time in a nursing home, John escapes and is later found dead in a nearby wood. It is assumed that he committed suicide.

John’s sister, Mary, contacts one of her brother’s old school friends, Laurence Bartram, in the hope that he can help her discover what really happened to her brother. Why would a man who had survived the horrors of the war shoot himself two years later? As Laurence starts to investigate, he begins to wonder whether someone else was behind John’s death.

The Return of Captain John Emmett is a fascinating story. It works well as a historical fiction novel, with its portrayal of the people of 1920s Britain coming to terms with the aftermath of World War I. But it’s also a gripping psychological mystery in which Laurence Bartram reluctantly takes on the role of detective to investigate the circumstances surrounding his friend’s death. There are clues, suspects, red herrings and all the other elements that make up a compelling and well-structured detective story.

The book is also an interesting and poignant study into the effects, both long-term and short-term, that the war had on individuals and their families. How people came back from the war an entirely different person to when they went away. How men dealt with the memories of the atrocities they witnessed. How their wives felt about the part of their husbands’ lives that they had been unable to share. How people were left with physical disabilities and had to learn to adjust.

We are given insights into the thoughts and emotions of a First World War soldier and we learn what it was like to be part of a firing squad. The War Poets are also touched upon, and so are the loyalties and friendships formed in British public schools.

Due to the subject and setting, the book had a sombre and depressing feel, yet I found myself really enjoying it. As the mystery surrounding John Emmett’s death became more and more complex and involved, I was completely drawn into Laurence Bartram’s investigations. The plot relies quite heavily on coincidences in places, but not so much that it spoiled the story for me at all. I loved it and will definitely be looking out for more novels from Elizabeth Speller!

I received a review copy of this book from NetGalley courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.