The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: March 4th, 2010
Format: Hardcover, 448 Pages
Laurence Bartram survived the Great War, his wife and child did not. In the years since he has become more and more recluse ostensibly working on a book about churches while hiding away in his garret of an apartment. A letter from someone out of his past is about to bring him back into the world. Mary Emmett, attractive and nymph like younger sister of his former classmate John Emmett has reached out to Laurence as perhaps the only person in the world who knew her brother well. This past winter John killed himself after a stay in a sanatorium and Mary wants to know why. Laurence insists that he is not the right man to make these inquiries on her behalf because he lost touch with John long before the war and he wouldn't possibly know where to begin. Yet his affection for Mary and what might have been reluctantly enlists his help, and she does have a suggestion for a starting point. John left three bequests in his will to people other than his family. A Captain William Bolitho, a widow named Mrs. Lovell, and a Frenchman the solicitors were never able to find, a Monsieur Meurice. With these three names Laurence starts to piece together a horrific event that happened during the war. An event that still has ramifications as those who were present start turning up dead. Sadly Laurence realizes that John Emmett has ended up being more important to him dead than alive... just as he is to a mysterious figure in a coat and hat who is following him.
The Return of Captain John Emmett is a good old fashioned ripping yarn that is reminiscent of the golden age of detection when Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham were writing murder mysteries that the world devoured. Just as I have imbibed the books of these "Queens of Crime" I couldn't put down Elizabeth Speller's book about Laurence Bartram. Phone calls went unanswered, emails were not replied to. I once again started to lament my inability to just absorb books into the very fibers of my being à la dark Willow in the season six finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But as much as I wanted to reach that grand unveiling, feverishly reading page after page, I almost didn't want the denouement to come because then this marvelous caper would be concluded. With each page I kept thinking back to the day I found this book at my local used bookstore and all I could think was, who could ever sell this awesome of a book? It had everything you could want! Atmospheric London right after the war, unrequited love, mysterious deaths, suicides that might not be as they seem, mistaken identities, adultery, murder, paternity issues, poetry, villains, heroes, humor, insane asylums, quaint rural pubs, love... everything! Seriously, there are some people lacking discernment in Madison. But there loss was my gain. As it always seems to be.
What the meat of the book hung off of was the amazing character development. Each and every person was such a unique individual. While I think it might be a sin to say that the protagonist Laurence wasn't my favorite, he just wasn't. Laurence means well, he's stolid and trustworthy and so sweet in how he always gets the wrong end of the stick, much like another favorite detective of mine, Inspector Morse, who also just stumbled into answers versus actually solving them. But my heart is forever with Laurence's best friend Charles. Firstly, Charles is a rabid Agatha Christie fan, even if she had only written one book when this book was set, a slight historical accuracy oops. Yet Charles' love of mystery fiction doesn't force the book into the cliched Watson and Holmes shtick that so many golden age mysteries suffer from. Instead it manifests in his rapid love of the case and his suggested reading materials to Laurence. Who doesn't love a sidekick with a reading list? Plus, having Charles around would be wonderful, he always has a cousin who knows all the gossip, plus a car to get around. Sorry Laurence, you are trumped in every sleuthing category by Charles. Yet that's why I love this book, it's like Watson is the accidental protagonist for once! But these are just two of the amazingly multi-faceted characters. From John Emmett's father and his very Mitford-esque nature, to the fiery red-head Mrs. Bolitho who was a nurse during the war and has very progressive political ideas. Not one character was flat and lifeless, they just emerged from the page fully formed and instantly became my friends. People versus characters.
Though the heart of the book is how Speller deals with the more difficult topics of what war does to someone. How to some, like the newspaperman Brabourne, it's just a phase in a life that will be reminiscences to his grandchildren, where to Emmett, it forever changed him and lead him to his grave at that folly in the countryside. Then there is Laurence, who has shut himself off from the world and become a recluse. This investigation Laurence undertakes helps to bring him back to the world and out of his shell. Because of a simple letter asking for help he is slowly reentering the world. The strong characterization of each individual in the book lets Speller examine the effects and tolls on myriad people, all who are different and unique. Life is a house of cards and one wrong rotten thing can ruin it... for some. Speller shows us clearly the difference of life during wartime and life after wartime, making this an interesting examination of the Great War. Sometimes things just happen in a war that you could never, ever see yourself doing under normal circumstances. And when the war ends, it's about coming to terms with what you did. How can life ever become what it was? But sometimes we can not be held accountable for everything that happens. We cope, we deal in our way. For some it's poetry, for others photography, some prefer isolation, and for others still, it is surrendering to your base animal instincts. Yet Speller handles all these sensitive issues and more without being preachy. She has created real people and through them we understand.
And what we have to understand most of all is that the Great War's biggest repercussion was that it was a great demystifier. Prior to being sent to their deaths among dirt and disease, these young men believed it was noble and patriotic to die for your country. But the Great War was just hell on earth. Literally. You were forced to do your duty because otherwise, well, otherwise you were dead. The most terrifying aspect of the war was that if you tried to desert because of cowardice, because you literally could not face going over the top, then you were killed by your own men. All told, the number of soldiers shot for cowardice was very small in the grand scheme of things, but to have to kill one of your own because they acted on what every single one of them was surely feeling, it's a betrayal to your own beliefs, surely. Something one might never get over. In recent years more and more literature, film, and television, has focused on shell shock and the mental repercussions of the war. But here Speller is able to show us both sides of the argument. She delves deep into that which supposedly had to be done for the greater good. Yet here the repercussions spin a complex yarn of a tale, a mystery that you'll want to go back to again and again. In fact, every time you see it on a shelf at a bookstore you might just want to pick it up to pass it along to someone who hasn't yet had the honor of reading it.
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller