If you prefer a book to leap immediately into action, this is probably not the mystery for you. The second in a series, it starts slowly, with Speller taking the time to develop the setting and characters.
Laurence Bartram is a young man damaged by World War I, during which his wife and child died and he was injured. Laurence is an expert on church architecture, and he is happy to be summoned to the estate of Easton Deadall by his friend, William Bolitho. William wants him to look over a small but unusual church, for which William is designing and installing a window.
Laurence is soon pulled into the affairs of the Eastons, a family that is haunted by the war, but moreso by the disappearance in 1911 of the young daughter of Digby Easton, the oldest of the three Easton brothers. Digby died during the war, but Kitty still obsesses her mother Lydia, an invalid who sometimes speaks of her as if she is alive.
The middle Easton son, Julian, has been doing his best with the estate, which Laurence finds beautiful but slightly crumbling, while Lydia’s sister Frances takes care of her. Laurence finds the subject of Kitty lurking behind every conversation and wonders if they will discover her body in the course of their renovations. Soon, the third Easton brother, Patrick, returns to Easton Deadall after an absence of years, first at Oxford and then on an archaeological dig in Greece. It becomes obvious that there is tension between him and Julian.
The family decides to make up a party to visit the Empire Exhibition. William, who was left wheelchair bound by the war, does not feel he can handle it, and Lydia is too ill, but the rest of the family goes. The expedition includes Eleanor, William’s wife, and Laurence. They also bring along David, the estate’s man of all work, and the teenage maid Maggie to help care for William and Eleanor’s young son Nicholas. At the exhibition, Maggie and Nicholas go missing, and although the others find Nicholas, Maggie is nowhere to be seen.
Distressed by Maggie’s disappearance, which can’t but echo the earlier one of Kitty, the family begins falling apart and secrets emerge, especially about the charismatic Digby and his relationships to his family and to his troops during the war. A few days after the disastrous outing, Laurence and David are clearing an area in the church to prepare for the installation of William’s window when they discover a trap door in the floor under the altar. When they open it, they find the body of a woman. The police are able to quickly ascertain that the body is of a woman too old to be Maggie, but then, who can it be? Could it even be Kitty, grown up and returned from wherever she has been?
Laurence does not exactly detect so much as look into a few things the others haven’t thought of, and he eventually unearths a tangle of secrets. Although the novel takes awhile to get going, I soon found myself unable to put it down. It slowly and skillfully builds to suspense. I found it well worth my patience.