Sunday, May 13, 2012

Book Review: The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller

London, 1920. In the aftermath of the Great War and a devastating family tragedy, Laurence Bartram has turned his back on the world. But with a well-timed letter, an old flame manages to draw him back in. Mary Emmett's brother John-like Laurence, an officer during the war-has apparently killed himself while in the care of a remote veteran's hospital, and Mary needs to know why.
Aided by his friend Charles-a dauntless gentleman with detective skills cadged from mystery novels-Laurence begins asking difficult questions. What connects a group of war poets, a bitter feud within Emmett's regiment, and a hidden love affair? Was Emmett's death really a suicide, or the missing piece in a puzzling series of murders? As veterans tied to Emmett continue to turn up dead, and Laurence is forced to face the darkest corners of his own war experiences, his own survival may depend upon uncovering the truth.
At once a compelling mystery and an elegant literary debut, The Return of Captain John Emmett blends the psychological depth of Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy with lively storytelling from the golden age of British crime fiction.

Synopsis courtesy of

My Review

4 Stars

Laurence Bartram survived the Great War, but his experiences as a soldier and the death of his wife and infant son while he was at the front led him to retreat from the world once he returned home.   When Mary Emmett, the sister of his old school friend John Emmett, writes to ask Laurence to help her uncover the reasons behind her brother's suicide, Laurence accepts.  While Emmett's death seems straight forward on the surface it turns out it is anything but.   Laurence's quest to find answers for Mary uncovers a web of wartime secrets linking Emmett to several men in his regiment who, since the end of the war, have been murdered.   As his investigation continues, Laurence begins to question whether John's death really was a suicide or if it was part of something much more sinister.  Along the way, Laurence must also confront his own wartime experiences and find a way to move forward with his own life.  

The Return of Captain John Emmett is a well-written and engaging historical mystery, one that doesn't shy away from incorporating the horrors experienced by the men and women who fought in World War I.   One of the greatest strengths of the novel is Speller's ability to capture the feelings and experiences of those who survived the war, whether they fought directly on the battlefields of Europe or remained at home worried about and waiting for love ones.  Speller's story clearly shows that nobody who lived through the period of the Great War was untouched by it, and that, for many people, the war didn't end when the guns fell silent.  The characters are well-developed and, since they are portrayed with both strengths and flaws, come across as authentic.  The mystery component of this novel is intriguing and keeps the reader turning the pages.  While a few minor elements of the mystery are easily solved before they are revealed, the principal storyline, that of John Emmett's death, remains a mystery until the very end. 

The novel remained me in many respects of the first novel in Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series, titled Maisie Dobbs (my review is here).   As such, I highly recommend The Return of Captain John Emmett to fans of the Maisie Dobbs series, as well as fans of WWI-era historical fiction.  

Note: This novel comes from my own personal collection.