The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller

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Title: The Return of Captain John Emmett

Author: Elizabeth Speller

Genre: Romance/Historical/War

Rating: ***

Review: The mood of London in 1920 reflected not only relief at the end of a devastating war but a psychological hangover that afflicted many who fought in it. In “The Return of Captain John Emmett,” Elizabeth Speller has captured the darkness of the era in a poignant prologue describing villagers gathered in darkness to see the passing of a train bearing a flag-draped coffin.

During the First World War, 346 British soldiers were shot, mostly for cowardice or desertion, but only three were officers. Elizabeth Speller’s absorbing first novel deals with the way that a single tragic execution poisons and distorts the lives of survivors in the aftermath of war.

One of the tragic survivors of the war is a young officer, Lawrence Bartram, who is haunted by the memory of his giving an order to advance to his troops in France at the same time his wife and baby son were dying in England. Financially comfortable, Bartram turns into a postwar hermit and his only link to the world around him is with an old school friend, Charles. A wealthy and pragmatic man, Charles symbolizes the kind of soldier who regarded dangerous military service as “kind of a lark” that almost killed him but also released him from the boredom of managing his family businesses.

He is a comfort and a reminder of realism to Bartram. Yet what wrenches Bartram out of his mourning is a letter telling him of the suicide of another wartime friend, Capt. John Emmett. Mary Emmett breaks the news of her brother’s death in what is clearly a call for help. Bartram responds, and in so doing finds himself embroiled in a morass of bitterness and murder. His suspicions are aroused when the circumstances of Emmett’s death suggest it is a questionable suicide. The situation is further complicated by a link to the execution of a British sergeant for desertion, in which Emmett played a crucial role.

The Return of Captain John Emmett el opens with the powerful image of the train bearing the body of the Unknown Warrior passing through a village on its way from Dover to London. Someone, watching, comments that it can never be known if the unidentified dead man was a hero or a coward or simply one of the multitude of the fallen. One man who will never have a hero’s burial is Lieutenant Hart, messily despatched by a firing squad a few years earlier in France.

That squad had been commanded by Captain John Emmett. He does not long survive the end of the war. In 1921, his sister Mary sends news of his death in a letter to his old friend, Laurence Bartram. Bartram lives alone in London. Shaken by his experiences at the Front and devastated by the death of his wife in childbirth, attempting to quiet his mind by writing a history of London churches, he seems an unlikely hero.

But he embarks on a strange and terrible quest to find out how and why Emmett has died, a supposed suicide, shot dead in a wood after leaving the asylum in which he has been confined.

Bartram had been at school with Emmett’s and travels to his home. Mary has asked him to go through her brother’s effects to see if he can find any clues to explain his death. Bartram’s investigation leads him to Tresham Brabourne, a Fleet Street newspaperman and military veteran who recalls the shooting of the sergeant as “a complete travesty of justice and dignity.”

In what becomes a complex crime novel, it would be unfair to disclose the windings of a very complicated plot. There are four more deaths of people who were connected to the wartime firing squad, all murdered and more or less mutilated.

On the level of an intelligent thriller, the book works efficiently enough, though approaching sometimes an almost Victorian level of coincidence and happenstance. What is remarkable is Speller’s skill in summoning up a past time, and the intensity of her writing in the evocation of place and emotion: saddened and muted post-war London; a sinister private mental asylum and its odious proprietor; a fittingly grim industrial Birmingham, and a very moving description of a priory where grievously wounded soldiers are tenderly nursed by nuns. In the testimonies of witnesses, we are shown the execution of Hart in all its shabby, botched horror.

The author  unwinds her plot with skill, moving between a war-scarred peace and the misery of life in the trenches of France. Bartram’s life is revived, somewhat ironically, as he retraces history, tracking the truth that lies behind the death of Emmett that proves to be murder. Even when he finds himself in love with the dead man’s sister, he is confronted again by the specter of the war, which rises to prevent a happy ending. As in most books about World War I, there is deep sadness in recollections of the combat and the terrible toll taken on the British people in the wake of the stupefying numbers of dead and wounded. It was a war that savaged a generation and from which the nation had barely recovered when it was plunged into World War II.

The author has done her homework on the attitudes of the time, and the problems of coping with the inevitably hidebound conventions of the military establishment. Bartram ultimately emerges to rejoin the world of those strong enough to cling to postwar life, yet it is his friend, the cynically humorous Charles, who comes close to stealing the book with his philosophical approach that embodies grim and accurate realism. The darkest days of World War II in England are encapsulated in Maureen Jennings’ “Season of Darkness,” and its crime scene is incidental to the global violence of the era. The setting is a Shropshire village where many of the young men have just returned from the debacle of Dunkirk, and most of them have been deeply affected by the experience. They include Jimmy, the son of local Detective Inspector Tom Tyler, who has retreated from his family, and especially his father.

As England girds for possible Nazi invasion, the village is also the setting for German espionage, with a spy ensconced in the neighborhood of a local internment camp. The murder of two young Land Girls, part of a corps set up to aid farmers deprived of local labor, puts the village into uproar and leaves Tyler with the task of sorting out not only violent death but his own revived affair with a long lost love. It makes things more complicated when she proves to be working for the British intelligence agency, MI6. The  literary style leaves something to be desired, but she gallops through her plot, doing justice to the remarkable drama of her scene and reminding that patriotic fervor was not an automatic reaction to the war when it was first declared in England in 1939. The book is flimsy in some respects, yet it is likely to appeal to the many readers who remain fascinated by the war that did indeed change the world.

One irritating anachronism: a character speaks of being sent a complete set of Beethoven’s work on record. In the early 1920s such a collection did not yet exist; if it had it would have amounted to hundreds of heavy shellac discs. That quibble apart, this is an involving and sensitively written examination of guilt and moral culpability: a fine achievement for a first novel. Readers should look forward to Elizabeth Speller’s future work.

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