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The Return of Captain John Emmett

by Elizabeth Speller


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The Return of Captain John Emmett

by Elizabeth Speller

Review posted November 27, 2011.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 442 pages.

The Return of Captain John Emmett is a mystery set in England a few years after the Great War. Laurence Bartram has returned from the war. His wife died while he was in France, when she was giving birth to their firstborn son. He's writing a book on old churches, but not making much progress.

Then, one Tuesday teatime, he was surprised to find a letter, addressed in unfamiliar handwriting, lying on the hall table. Later he came to think of it as the letter. It had been forwarded twice: first from his old Oxford college, then from his former marital home; it was a miracle it had got to him at all.

The letter is from Mary Emmett, the sister of a boy he knew when he was in school, John Emmett. She writes:

I wanted to tell you that John died six months ago and, horribly, he shot himself. He seemed to have been luckier than many in the war, but when he came back from France he wouldn't talk and just sat in his room or went for long walks at night. He said he couldn't sleep. I don't think he was writing or reading or any of the other things he used to enjoy. Sometimes he would get in furious rages, even with our mother. Finally he got in a fight with strangers and was arrested.

Our doctor said that he needed more help than he could provide. He found him a place in a nursing home. John went along with it but then the following winter he ran away. A month later a keeper found his body in a wood over thirty miles away. He didn't leave a letter. Nothing to explain it. We had thought he was getting better.

Mary asks Laurence to investigate John's death, to try to find out why he would do such a thing. His investigation is leisurely and slow, but one thing leads to another, and he begins to get a picture of John Emmett's war and especially a firing squad where a British officer was executed, and John Emmett was required to be the commanding officer. Recently, quite a few other people who were there that same day have died or been killed. Is there a connection?

Laurence's well-connected friend Charles is reading golden-age detective fiction during the book, but this book didn't really evoke those books. With the details about the war experiences, this isn't really a "cozy" mystery, and the clues aren't really in place for the reader to spot the denouement.

However, this book was just perfect for the end of my stroke recovery time off. It told an interesting mystery at a leisurely pace, but really evoked the time period after the Great War and let you watch Laurence Bartram taking a new interest in life. With him, you got to know the many different characters who touched John Emmett's life, and piece together the story of what happened.

I should add that this book is a first novel, and is very impressive as such. I don't know a whole lot about England between the wars, but the author clearly does, and fills the book with loving detail.

Don't pick up this book if you're looking for an action-packed quick read! But if you're looking for a leisurely and lingering story of people making sense of a difficult time when the world was changing -- then this book is a good choice.