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The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

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Category: Thrillers
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Three men disappeared from an inaccesible lighthouse in 1972. Twenty years later, can the mystery be explained? Exceptionally good.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: March 2021
Publisher: Picador
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1529047318

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A fisherman told him once about the sea having two faces. You have to take them both, he said, the good and the bad, and never turn your back on either one of them.

In 1972, fifteen miles off the coast of Cornwall, three men disappeared without trace from The Maiden Rock Lighthouse in the frigid pause between Christmas and New Year. Jory Martin had taken out a relief keeper, the weather such that the boat [was] rocking and bobbing like a bath toy over the wavelets but they were unable to get any response from the Maiden Rock. It was broken into the next day, but there was no sign of the men. The table was set for a meal for two - and the clocks were stopped at 8.45. Contact with the light had not been possible as the radio was broken. No explanation was ever found for what happened to the men.

Arthur Black was the Principal Keeper - or PK as he would have been known in the service - and he was greatly respected. His wife, Helen, often wondered if Arthur was actually happier when he spent his eight weeks on the light than in the four weeks when he was at home. They'd never discussed it. The Assistant Keeper was Bill Walker. It was difficult to say where he was happiest. Home meant his wife, Jenny, and adult children. Everything was done for him including the regular provision of food treats which he had once liked but not any more. It was suffocating. The light meant the sea - and Bill didn't like the sea - but there seemed to be no way out.

Vince Bourne was the supernumerary Assistant Keeper - generally known as the super. Vince was happy: onshore he had his girlfriend, Michelle, but on Maiden Rock, he had the solitude which he coveted. It was the perfect combination and Vince was even somewhat surprised to find that he had ambition. He'd never been in a position to experience this before: his criminal record usually meant that all he had to look forward to was more time inside. Now he thought of making Assistant Keeper, which came with accommodation and possibly even Principal Keeper.

Each year, on the anniversary of the disappearance, Helen Walker made a pilgrimage to her old home but the twentieth anniversary is somewhat different. An adventure novelist, Dan Sharp, is planning a non-fiction book about the disappearances and he wants to speak to the people who were left behind. Although it had seemed that the women had told all that they know of late 1972, there were secrets still to be teased out.

Just occasionally you read a book and before you're at the bottom of the first page you know that it's going to be special: that's what happened with The Lamplighters. I knew I was in safe hands. I had every confidence in the research that had been done to the point where I knew that there was a great deal more that Emma Stonex could have told me, but hadn't needed to. When you read you'll know exactly what it was like to be imprisoned in a tower. You'll understand the simmering tensions which need to be tamped down as there is no walking away from the situation. You'll understand the frustrations which can come from something as simple as your bunk not being quite long enough for you and curved.

The characterisation is excellent: the men and their wives/girlfriend are captured perfectly. Even shadowy Trident (which runs the lighthouses and shouldn't be confused with Trinity House) is a character in its own right. I was stunned by the plot: the clues were all there but I was still uncertain about who was responsible for the disappearances until the very last moment. The book comes with the highest possible recommendation and I'd like to thank the publishers for letting Bookbag have a review copy.

For more experiences with lighthouses, we can recommend The Lighthouse by Alison Moore and The Lighthouse by P D James.

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