The Return of Captain John Emmett

The Return of Captain John Emmett, A Mystery, by Elizabeth Speller. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston/New York.  July 5, 2011. 452pp.

A young British officer is executed, by firing squad, for cowardice in World War I France;  Captain John Emmett,  the commanding officer in charge, was ordered to implement the decisions of the field (kangaroo) court. The whole plot unwinds from this tragic starting-point.

Mary Emmett, John’s sister, contacts a childhood friend, Laurence Bartram, to enlist his aid in understanding why her brother committed suicide; John had been at a mental hospital, recovering from “neurasthenia “– why would he kill himself when he’d been getting better? Laurence agrees  to help. Beginning with the legatees of Captain Emmett’s will and later by a mysterious photograph of a group of soldiers, Laurence picks apart the tangle of histories, secrets, cover-ups, falsehoods, illicit love affairs, illegitimate children, and family relationships, discovering as he identifies the men who made up the firing squad and tribunal that virtually each one of those men is dead–some murdered, others by seeming accident.  Laurence is aided in his investigations by his oldest friend, Charles Carfax, a fan of Miss Agatha Christie’s work, my favorite character and a pleasing amalgam of Philo Vance and Bertie Wooster. Mary provides the growing love interest, there are enough evil villains and cads to satisfy that quotient, and Laurence is a likable, intelligent and sympathetic protagonist. The book is quite well-researched (sources are noted in a detailed Afterword), and the reader is carefully exposed to some of the horrors of that war through Laurence’s interviews and through his own memories; one immediately thinks about current wars and contemporary fighters, how there’s still a paucity of psychiatric understanding, much less treatment, for those with hidden wounds.

Don’t make the mistake thinking that The Return of Captain John Emmett is an easy read; one may be lulled by the leisurely pace of the plot’s unfolding. The book is well-wrought; the method of its telling may seem at times meandering, but the plot is nonetheless tightly-constructed. As Laurence laboriously uncovers each fact, the reader is reminded that access to information at this time between the wars was not instantaneous, that communication with others depended upon newspapers, notes sent to a friend’s club,  and letters, and actual conversations with people; even telephones and automobiles were still novelties. There’s not an anachronous note struck in the entire work, which is quite an accomplishment for a novel  of a time so removed from modernity. The book is well worth the effort!


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