Letters from the Lighthouse

Historical fiction done well has a timeless quality to it, and Letters from the Lighthouse is an excellent case in point. It doesn’t feel as if it was written decades ago, but that will invariably still be true twenty or thirty years after its 2017 publication date too.

A trip to the cinema shouldn’t be the start of a rollercoaster adventure, but Sukie is taking her younger sister Olive and their baby brother Cliff to the cinema in London in 1941, so there’s always the risk something exciting or terrifying might happen. It’s both. Just after Sukie leaves Olive and Cliff for a moment, the Luftwaffe put in an unwelcome appearance. In the midst of a chaotic air raid, Olive is pretty sure she sees Sukie talking to a strange man. The next thing Olive is aware of, she’s waking up in hospital and nobody has seen Sukie since.

Olive and Cliff are evacuated to the Devon coast to stay with someone who is supposedly Sukie’s penpal, but the woman doesn’t seem to know Sukie at all. Though Olive feared she was being sent too far from the site of Sukie’s disappearance to investigate, she quickly realises the mystery might be solved right here. First she has to decode a strange message found in Sukie’s coat before she left, and investigate what that has to do with a lighthouse and the odd secretive behaviour of so many people in the village.

This isn’t an adventure in the sense that it’s full of daring escapades (though there is a quicksand scene), but more that secrets pile in on lies and nobody knows who to trust. There are baddies aplenty, but not all of them are Luftwaffe pilots. Some of them are the most common sorts – those inclined towards petty meanness for its own sake. Yet not everybody who seems to be a villain is one, and to get to the bottom of the Sukie mystery, Olive has to work out which is which.

The Second World War is well trod ground and stories based around evacuees risk comparison to some genuine children’s classics, but Emma Carroll stakes out her own turf with a mystery thriller that’s all about the people – and ultimately the smallest and most vulnerable of them. There’s some cracking humour too, including a wonderful riff on an “I’m Spartacus” moment where everyone’s true colours are finally revealed.