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'The Lake House' cleverly unites two missing-person cases, decades apart

'The Lake House' is a bookworm’s delight – a carefully thought out mystery full of skillfully drawn characters.

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    The Lake House
    By Kate Morton
    Atria Books
    512 pp.
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On Midsummer’s Eve in 1933 in Cornwall, a little boy disappeared from his nursery on the night of his parents’ annual party. Despite 300 guests, no one saw anyone or anything suspicious.

Theo Edevane was never found. The family estate of Loeanneth was abandoned, and locals talked about the baby spirited away by fairies.

Seventy years later, a detective constable in a lot of trouble happens upon the abandoned estate in Kate Morton’s fifth novel, The Lake House. Loeanneth “sat deep in a dell, surrounded by thick, briar-tangled woods, just like houses must in fairy tales.”

“The Lake House” offers plenty of old-fashioned reading pleasure, with  dual plotlines unfolding decades apart. At nearly 500 pages, it’s a big book with ample room for readers who like to disappear into a story. And with a writer as one of the central characters, Morton offers some sly commentary on just how one goes about constructing a satisfying mystery.

Sadie Sparrow is on leave – and her career is on life support – after leaking details about the case of a missing woman to the media. She’s staying with her grandfather and trying to evade his questions about the reason for her visit. A deeply unfanciful person, Sadie has little patience for the supernatural as an explanation for a missing child.

“No doubt about it, the fairy-tale element was one of the trickiest elements of the case. Cold cases were always a challenge, but this one had the added folklore factor,” she thinks. “Sadie didn’t go in for presentiments – there was no need for a sixth sense when the other five were being properly employed.”

Her parents weren’t the sort to read their children fairy stories at bedtime. “Regardless," Morton writes, "Sadie had absorbed enough as a citizen of the world to know that people went missing in fairy tales, that there were usually deep dark woods involved. People went missing often enough in real life, too, woods or not.”

Theo’s mother, father, and three older sisters – shown preserved in a picnic photo of Edwardian tranquility – are concealing secrets behind an impenetrable wall of upper-class silence. His sisters, one of whom becomes a mystery novelist in the vein of P.D. James, have blamed themselves for decades for their baby brother’s disappearance. When Alice Edevane gets a letter from Sadie wanting to interview her about the case, she is highly reluctant to dredge up the past, with all its thwarted happiness. 

Alice was 16 the night of Theo’s disappearance. She was in love and had just finished the draft of her first novel – about a missing child. The night’s events wound up changing the course of both.

Seventy years on, she is working on her 50th novel and lives alone, riding the London Underground every day in order to make sure her plots remain relevant.

“Alice’s books were English mysteries, but there was nothing cosy about them. They were the sort of crime novels reviewers liked to describe as ‘psychologically taut’ and ‘morally ambiguous,’ whydunits as much as they were whos or hows.”

“The Lake House” pays particular attention to the why, with satisfying results. As a succession of theories are broached, the novel dips back into the past, to when first Alice and then her mother Eleanor were young. Eleanor deShiel also had her own brush with fiction: She was the inspiration for “Eleanor’s Magic Doorway,” a story by her lifelong friend Daffyd Llewellyn, who is found dead the morning after Theo vanishes.

Alice, whether shown a teenager or an octogenarian, is a delight. 

Of her sewing detective, who has a penchant for patchwork, she thinks, “critics continued to claim the hobby was an attempt by Alice to soften her detective’s rough edges, but it wasn’t true. Alice liked rough edges; and she was deeply suspicious of people determined not to have any.”

“The Lake House” actually could have used a little less sanding of its own. The ending tied everything up in a neat bow that A.C. Edevane surely would have scorned. But until that unfortunate decision, “The Lake House” is a bookworm’s delight – a carefully thought out mystery full of skillfully drawn characters, almost all of whom are hiding something.

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