As soon as I finished Elizabeth Speller’s The Return of Captain John Emmett I turned to its sequel The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, grateful that I didn’t have to leave behind the character of Laurence Bertram just yet. If anything, this second novel was even more satisfying and absorbing than the first, building on our knowledge of previously known characters while introducing equally complicated and interesting people.
Set in the years following World War I, Laurence Bertram is called to the village of Eastern Deadall where his friends William and Eleanor Bolitho are helping to construct a memorial to the village’s war dead – a window in the church and a maze in the garden of the estate owned by the Easton family. As the Easton church is prepared for its new window, architectural mysteries are revealed, such as the floor hastily covered with tar and the suspicion of a forgotten vault. As a man who writes about churches, Laurence is perfectly suited to investigate the history of this building.
But that’s not the only mystery. Before the war, the lord of the manor Digby Easton and his fragile wife Lydia lost their only child, Kitty. One day she simply vanished. The manic search of the family and everyone in the village for this lost child fills the novel as do the secrets of this damaged family. When the family with Laurence visits the Great Empire Exhibition in London one day, another terrible happening triggers off a sequence of events that strangely help to explain what might have happened.
The theme of The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton is the maze. The maze planned for the garden oddly mirrors the hidden design of the church floor and, as it turns out, the labyrinth beneath that floor.
As with the previous novel, the strength of this one lies in the characterisation. The Easton family, the Bolithos, Kitty and her sister Frances and Laurence, plus the characters he encounters as he chases the footprints of Kitty. But, as before, the war is never far away and, as the search for truth takes Bertram into the labyrinth, his claustrophobia and terror are vividly brought home to us.
Elizabeth Speller’s writing appears effortless and is beautiful. This is book two. May there be many more.