Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Book Review - Elizabeth Speller's The Return of Captain John Emmett

The Return of Captain John Emmett (Laurence Bartram Book 1) by Elizabeth Speller
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: March 4th, 2010
Format: Hardcover, 448 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

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 in his garret of an apartment. A letter from 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 one 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 long before the war he lost touch with John and he wouldn't possibly know where to begin.

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 then 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 then alive... just as he is to a mysterious figure in a coat and hat.

The Return of Captain John Emmett is a good old fashioned murder mystery that I could not put down. Phone calls went unanswered, emails were not replied to. I had a desperate need to just absorb this book into the very fibers of my being a la evil Willow in Buffy. In fact, I thought of 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!

What the meat of the book hung off of was the amazing character development. Each and every person was so unique and individual. While I think it might be a sin to say that Laurence wasn't my favorite, I mean, he was stolid and trustworthy and so sweet in how he seemed to always get the wrong end of the stick and he just stumbled into answers versus actually solving them, but my heart is with his best friend Charles. Firstly, Charles is a rabid Agatha Christie fan (even if she had only written one book when this book was set, not more, a historical accuracy oops). Yet Charles' love of mystery fiction doesn't go into too much of the cliched Watson and Holmes shtick that so many golden age mysteries suffer from. Instead it's manifest in his rapid love of the case and his suggested reading materials to Laurence. 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 the sleuth category in every category by Charles. Yet that's why I love this book, it's like Watson is the protagonist! But these are just two of the amazingly multi-faceted characters that are too many to be mentioned. From John Emmett's father and his very Mitford-esque nature, to George Chilvers, the power hungry possessive son of the owner of the secure facility that John Emmett was locked in, to the fiery red-head Mrs. Bolitho who was a nurse during the war and has very progressive political ideas. Not one person was flat and lifeless, they just emerged from the page fully formed and instantly became my friends.

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. This investigation he 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 let 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. 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.


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