The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: 2011
Source: Copy provided by publisher through NetGalley
The Short Version:
Captain John Emmett’s sister asks his school friend to find out why he committed suicide and story ends up being far more complex than anyone expects.
Why I Read It:
One of the things I enjoy about the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear is the setting. As soon as I read the description of this book I knew I wanted to read this mystery set in England a few years after World War I.
In 1920 London, Laurence Bartram is in many ways still struggling to cope with the changes in his life. While he was on the battlefields of World War I, his wife an infant child died back home. Since his return from the war he has become a bit of a recluse and loner.
When he receives a letter from the sister of a former school friend he learns that John Emmet has killed himself. John’s sister Mary who briefly met Laurence when they were school age asks him to look into the circumstances of her brother’s death in hopes that she’ll learn why he committed suicide.
With this return of Captain John Emmett to Laurence’s life, he sets off on an investigation that will change it in many ways. He delves into John’s past and seeks to learn what may have happened during the war that led to John’s commitment to a mental hospital. Enlisting the help of his friend Charles, Laurence digs deeper into the story of a man he had lost touch with after school. He learns some hard truths about his friend, his own military, and people who crossed paths with John. Along the way he also learns some truths about himself and perhaps a path out of his own post war withdrawal from society and personal interactions.
I had a good feeling about this book when I first read the description. One of the things I like about the Maisie Dobbs series is the setting in post WWI England so a mystery with that background intrigued me. Then a publisher rep I know mentioned it and said she was sure I would like it. She was absolutely right.
I loved the writing style. I loved the mixture of historical fiction and mystery. It begins a bit slowly and gradually builds up the layers of mystery and questions. It wasn’t the kind of mystery where I seriously tried to look for clues and solve it before the protagonist. It was more of a fascinating historical narrative that creates interwoven storylines that develop into an interesting whodunit before it’s all over. Along the way the horrors of war and the struggles the survivors continue to cope with after the peace treaties are signed are very much a part of the story.
Captain John Emmett is clearly dead before he’s even introduced in the story, yet he’s very much a main character in it. The way that Laurence learns about him from a variety of other people is wonderful. I discovered John’s story right along with Laurence. I loved that Laurence also discovered himself as he sought the truth about what happened to John and the men he served with.
The sense of time and place is clear in this book. The aftermath of World War I as well as the events that took place during the war are incredibly well portrayed. What begins as the story of one man becomes a story of an event with far reaching effects. It’s a story that I can readily recommend.