The years surrounding World War I are fascinating to me for a variety of reasons. Before the war, particularly in England there was a sense of being in a golden age--the Empire was at its height, it was a period of wealth and abundance. While this is likely a false perception (depending on which class you were part of anyway), the war was so catastrophic for an entire generation it literally changed the world and helped usher in a new era of modernity. So much happened and so much changed for so many people, I never tire of reading about the period. There've been a spate of mysteries set in the years just after the war, and recently Elizabeth Speller has joined their ranks taking a fresh approach to the subject. She combines not only an interesting perspective but exquisite writing and storytelling abilities making The Return of Captain John Emmett one of my favorite reads so far this year.
The story begins in November 1920 as a train pulls into a station carrying the body of an unknown soldier which will be interred in Westminster Abbey. The body is to stand for the millions of lives lost on the battlefields of France and Belgium, but John Emmett is a soldier who didn't die in the war but years afterwards. For the men who survived the war to return home normalcy wasn't something easily acquired, and John Emmett, already somewhat estranged from his family had a difficult time adjusting to life back in England.
After an apparent suicide John's sister Mary asks Laurence Bartram, and old school buddy, to look into his death. John had been recuperating in a veteran's hospital, and while seemingly on the mend he left the hospital grounds and shot himself. Mary is hoping that Laurence will discover something about John's life that will explain what happened. Before the war he had been living in Germany and was involved with a German woman but as soon as it became obvious war could not be avoided he enlisted. Mary has only a photograph to give Laurence to go on and the fact that he bequeathed a number of large monetary gifts to individuals whose relationships with John are uncertain.
Laurence Bartram is himself leading a melancholy life after the war and while not exactly a natural detective (though a dogged one he will become over the course of his 'investigations'), the return of John Emmett into his life also will alter it. The day Laurence went over the top into vicious combat was the day that his wife and child died. He survived the war only to come home to an empty home. Now he lives alone in rented rooms and works on a book about London churches. As he begins asking questions he realizes the photo was taken during the war right before an officer was executed for not following orders on the battlefield. And now he must suss out how those in the photograph are related to those who were named in John's will.
Uncovering the truth behind the photo leads Laurence on a rather circuitous route and one that becomes increasingly dangerous. He's joined by his oldest and indefatigable friend Charles who has a deep appreciation for the novels of Mrs. Agatha Christie combined with an unerring sense of direction and a large circle of well-connected friends which makes him indispensible. John Emmett was involved in the execution of a fellow officer, a man who had risen in the ranks, but everything went off badly. It was a complete fiasco and John carried the burdon with him. Was it the guilt that caused him to kill himself or was it a matter of revenge? As more of the men in the photograph turn up dead, it seems as though the truth Mary is seeking about her brother is linked to something altogether darker and even a little sinister.
The Return of Captain John Emmett is a finely executed mystery with a true puzzle at its heart but also a story about the after effects of the war. Both Laurence and Charles are likable characters, intelligent but not without flaws. Laurence was especially well drawn, however. He seemed very real and earnest in his wish to help Mary. This is a story that simmers for a while before it comes to a rolling boil. It's more thoughtful than edge-of-your-seat sort of stuff, but that did not in any way take away from the pleasure I had reading this story.
I'm not in the least surprised to hear that Elizabeth Speller won the Orange New Writers Prize earlier this year and was shortlisted for the Waverton Good Read Award for her first mystery. Although my copy The Return of Captain John Emmett came by way of Netgalley as an ebook, I am happy to already have The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton on my reading pile, which I do hope to pick up soon. It has not actually been published yet in the US, but I see it is listed on Amazon for purchase. You can check out Elizabeth Speller's website here. And do take a look at the video I've attached to my post as she speaks about her research and the background of the book. Fascinating stuff all!