Sunday, August 21, 2011
The Return of Captain John Emmett
by Elizabeth Speller, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 2011
Some of the prose was excellent, the research was outstanding but it did not all come together for me
London in 1920 is the setting for this mystery. The protagonist is Laurence Bartram, a young widower who has lost his wife and child while he was serving at the front in France in WWI. Bartram is withdrawn and uninvolved in life as he struggles to deal with the horrors of the war and the personal losses he has suffered. A letter from the sister of a school friend asking him to investigate the circumstances of her brother’s suicide draws him back into society. Laurence, with the obligatory sidekick, his friend Charles looks into the suicide of Captain John Emmett. As you might expect the investigation uncovers evidence that makes the suicide less likely and murder more likely. Laurence finds that Capt. Emmett was involved in an incident during the war where an officer was charged with cowardice and executed for it. This allows the author to examine how shellshock was treated during the First World War, as he continues to puzzle out the circumstances of Emmett’s death.
I may have World War I fatigue myself. I have read quite a bit of both fiction and nonfiction from that time period. This story had good period detail and examined an interesting issue – the way the military handled soldiers who refused to fight – but all in all it left me fairly unexcited. The mystery aspect was long and meandering. Bartram never focused on the obvious suspects - relatives of the executed officer. When the murderer was revealed he arrived from left field in my opinion. Also the characters were not well developed despite lots of detail I found myself hard pressed to care about them. I think the issue may have been that the author couldn’t decide whether he was writing a mystery or writing literacy fiction. Some of the prose was excellent, the research was outstanding but it did not all come together for me. If you are interested in the effects of WWI on the post war British I’d recommend the Maisie Dobbs series. In that series the characters are well drawn and the mystery complex enough to engage. Also quite good are the early novels by Charles Todd in the Ian Rutledge series. Perhaps if I hadn’t read mysteries in those two series I’d be kinder to this one but it just didn’t do it for me.
I read a copy of this book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia.