It is 1924. Laurence Bartram, a specialist in church history and architecture, is asked by an architect friend to come to Easton Hall in the English countryside, to help determine the background and antiquity of an old church on the manor property and help restore it. A window is to be placed in the church, a memorial to those from the area who died in the Great War. And a memorial maze is being designed and planted near the church.
The war’s effects are everywhere in the manor and village. Regiments during the war were often based on location, which meant not only battlefield casualties but devastating effects on villages, towns and counties. The regiment from the village of Easton Deadall was nearly wiped out, and a generation of men lost. The war’s effects remain for those who survived the war as well. Bartram’s architect friend William Bolitho is permanently wheelchair-bound; Bartram himself suffers from lingering effects of the battlefield. Bartram also lost his wife and son in childbirth, a loss compounded by the guilt of knowing he did not love his wife.
Arriving at the hall, he finds an Easton family consumed by tensions, the effects of the war, and the disappearance of five-year-old Kitty Easton in 1911. The child, or her body, have never been found, and yet the mystery of her disappearance continues to almost define the family.
Bartram focuses on the restoration work at the church, which dates back to Saxon times. He takes time out to join the family and a few servants at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in south London. A teenager who works at the hall disappears at the exhibition. The trusted chauffeur acts out-of-character. Once the group is back at Easton and work resumes on the church, Bartram finds a body of a woman in the church crypt – a body of someone recently dead. The investigation begins to lead inevitably to what happened to the missing child so long ago.
The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton is Elizabeth Speller’s second Laurance Bartram mystery, following The Return of Captain John Emmett, and it both a classic English-house-in-the-countryside murder mystery and an intelligent improvement upon the genre. Speller weaves mystery and history, so that the reader not only gets a good story but also insight into the effects of the first world war, the 1924 exhibition (a celebration of a British Empire that was already beginning to ebb), and even church history and architecture. Add tortured personal relationships, and people haunted by their individual and collective pasts, and the result is one excellent and absorbing read.
Speller is also the author of The First of July (also published under the title of At Break of Day), a novel of the lives of four men and how their lives are forever changed as the World War I Battle of the Somme begins; and The Sunlight on the Garden, a novel about family history and madness. If The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton is any indication, these works should be well worth reading by an author is clearly a fine, and intriguing, writer.
Photograph: Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire U.K. by Steve Bryant via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.