The Lamplighters takes inspiration from one of the big unsolved puzzles of modern times: the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in the Outer Hebrides in 1900.
This mystery isn’t in the same league as the disappearance of Lord Lucan, the assassination of John F Kennedy or the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. But questions about the fate of those men filled newspapers around the world for decades, speculation about the cause of their disappearance still evident today.
Emma Stonex’s novel is not a rehash of the events of 1900 however. The Lamplighters is set more than 70 years later than the real life event and features three fictional keepers. They work at Maiden Rock, a Cornish lighthouse that rises out of the sea, whereas the real keepers were on a land-based lighthouse in the Flannan Isles near Scotland.
The change of location gives an added intensity to the atmosphere of the novel. One of the local boatmen remarks how newcomers always arrived with a romantic idea of life out on this rock fifteen miles from land. The reality is vastly different:
There’s nothing special about it, nothing at all, just three men and a lot of water. It takes a certain sort to withstand being locked up. Loneliness . Isolation, Monotony Nothin for miles except sea, sea and more sea. No friends. No women. Just the other two. Day in, dayout unable to get away from them , it could drive you start mad.
Part of The Lamplighters takes place on the lighthouse in the days building up to the men’s disappearance in 1972.
It opens when a boat arrives at the lighthouse to relieve the assistant keeper Bill Walker from his two-month tour of duty. But the boatman finds the place deserted. The door is barred from the inside, the table laid for a meal and the clocks stopped at 8.45am. Of Walker, the principal keeper Arthur Black and their junior Vincent Bourne there is no sign.
In a second strand, Stonex jumps forward twenty years with interest in the mystery re-awakened by a best-selling author who sets out to unearth the truth of the men’s disappearance. His inquiries create anxiety for the wives and girlfriends left behind, awakening fears that secrets they have kept for twenty years could now be forced into the open.
The result is a narrative that is part mystery and part psychological investigation with the occasional drift into the world of the supernatural.
What I Enjoyed
A Lighthouse Keeper’s Life
The Lamplighters provides some fascinating insight into the daily lives of the people who tend to the lighthouse.
We get to experience their isolation, loneliness and tedium of days where every day is essentially the same. They log the weather conditions, fire up the lamp that will send a warning beam far across the waves and clean. In the times between shifts they smoke, listen to the radio, cook using dwindling rations and try to sleep in awkward shaped “banana beds.”.
They have to be self sufficient, unable to guarantee that the occasional supply boat will make it from the mainland in stormy weather. Thrust into each others company day and night for two months in a damp, briny, windowless tower, it’s not surprising that tensions arise periodically.
It’s fair game for a couple of keepers to have a moan about whoever’s not in the room — like unscrewing a bottle, a way of letting it out just to say , ‘Did you notice how annoying it was when he did this; he can be such a stingy prick from time to time can’t he?’ Not meant unkindly but it just keeps things from bubbling away instead of bubbling over.
The Sea,The Sea
As you might expect, the sea is ever present in this novel.
Its mood shifts perpetually, one moment glistening and benign , the next a churning mass whipped up by winds so strong they send boulders slamming into the towers at fifty miles an hour.
The keepers see its beauty and majesty but they know it has a destructive quality, a power that cannot be tamed. They have a whole dictionary of terms to describe its appearance and the surrounding weather conditions: “loud seas, and silent seas, mirror seas and heaving seas … Drizzling. Gloomy. Lightning. Squall. Thunder. Wet Dew. Haze …”
The Maiden is meant to keep them safe, an imposing piece of Victorian engineering jutting fifty feet into the air from a solid granite base. Visible from the keeper’s cottages on shore it acts as a siren, calling them back whenever they are on home leave and reminding them of their other life.
But it’s also a warning to keep away, a structure built according to legend “on the jaws of fossilised sea monsters” which has already claimed lives; men who died during her construction and off course sailors who strayed too close to the warren of rocks that surround its base.
What I Didn’t Enjoy
Dual Time Frame
The Lamplighters is at its strongest in the chapters set on the Maiden. This has atmosphere, mystery and depth of character as the inner lives of the men and their secrets are revealed.
By contrast I found it hard to get engaged in the 1992 chapters featuring the wives of two of the men and the girlfriend of the third. We learn of struggles to cope with loneliness, of not knowing whether their partner is alive or dead — and if dead, how — and guilt over secrets they have never revealed.
These chapters lacked atmosphere and feIt repetitive. I also found the characters irritating, particularly Bill Walker’s wife Jenny. She’s constantly dropping hints about a terrible deed in her past that she has kept secret all these years.
I’d have been happier if the novel had just stayed on the lighthouse.
This is yet another novel in which the author manages to get the style of a newspaper report completely wrong.
Very early on we get a short report supposedly printed in The Times on 31 December 1972 reporting that three keepers have disappeared from the lighthouse and an investigation is underway.
Error number one: The Times would not have been published on a Sunday — just as today it was a Monday—Saturday newspaper. Any such article would have appeared in The Sunday Times (completely different editorial team).
Error number two: no newspaper of this stature would never start a news report with “Trident House has been informed of …” Something along the lines of “An investigation has been launched into the mysterious disappearance of ….”
A few pages later we get an article from The Independent in 1992 about the author Dan Sharp who wants to re-visit the keepers’ disappearance. This is similarly structured completely incorrectly for a news article.
I know I’m especially sensitive to those kinds of errors given my previous life as a journalist. Other readers might not find anything amiss but it irritates me immensely that fiction writers don’t invest more time getting the tone and structure right whenever they veer into the world of news reporting.
Were the three men spirited away by some supernatural force? Did the feelings of isolation become so overwhelming they all committed suicide? Was the junior keeper the victim of a hit man from his criminal past? All these possibilities remain in play until the final pages of the novel.
The mystery element is well handled and kept me engaged. The denouement was a satisfying explanation for the men’s disappearance.
But then we got an additional revelation about the true identity of the author Dan Sharp and a puzzling decision he makes about his book. All completely unnecessary, a tying up of loose ends that could easily have remained loose since they had little material effect on the narrative.
It isn’t a poor book by any means, just not as good as it could have been. I was the lone voice when we discussed it at our book club meeting — every other member thoroughly enjoyed its atmosphere and sense of mystery. If you enjoy those elements in a book, then give it a go — you might be as enthralled by it as my fellow book club members.