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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Review: 'The Return of Captain John Emmett'

By Elizabeth Speller
Historical crime fiction                                                                                
July 2011
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0547511696

The end of World War I was a traumatic time for Britain, even though they won. Hundreds of thousands of men died, and more than a million came back wounded. Family dynamics changed, the roles of women changed, everyone who survived sought ways to carry on and cope with a world that had changed around them. At the same time, the Golden Age in mystery fiction began.

Elizabeth Speller brings all of these elements together in her debut novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett. It's a wonderful story that sheds light on the engimatic title character, the narrator who searches for the truth about Capt. Emmett's last days, the changes in British society and what happens when people think they're doing favors by not telling the truth.

Laurence Bartram is one young officer trying to put his life back together after the year. His wife and newborn son died while he was off fighting. Back in London, he's trying to write a book but is as diffident about it as he is about everything else. He learns of the suicide of a former school mate, John Emmett, who returned from the war a broken man. John's sister wants to know more about John's final days, so she enlists Laurie's help. Since he's so obviously at loose ends, and wants to be a decent chap, he agrees to see what he can find out.

His search takes him to a home for such broken soldiers, as well as a few people who were left small legacies by Captain Emmett. What bound him to them? What made him feel he should do something? Their stories show the range of sorry situations in which people found themselves -- one man confined to a wheelchair, a former nurse still caring for the wounded, a soldier still working for his officer trying to forget a shameful episode and a journalist who tried to record the horror that was happening.

Eventually Laurie discovers a small group of men ordered to take part in a disgraceful act have been dying after the war. Are they are odd accidents? Or are they being murdered? And, if they have been killed, who did it?

Laurie, with the help of another old friend, Charles, sets off on a classic amateur detective's journey. What they uncover are the kinds of secrets that the characters have kept from those they care about the most, hoping to spare them the harsh realities of war. As is usual when secrets are kept, the unforeseen complications cause their own kind of pain. But true to human nature, Speller's characters don't come to this realization and decide to be truthful after the revelations. They continue protecting those they love. Many of them are trapped in a past when people just did what they were called upon to do, and kept stiff upper lips instead of unburdening themselves on others.

Nothing, however, is kept from one major character. Perhaps it's no coincidence that this character also appears to be one of those most likely to have absorbed war's tragedies and who appears to not be haunted by the past. The other major character who appears in best shape seems to be one of those who has absorbed everything all along and can carry on, the way the other characters have fooled themselves into thinking they could do.

Speller's use of the historical record serves her story well. Among other sources, she uses the work of Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, who inspired greatness in Pat Barker's haunting Regeneration trilogy. The lost poets also receive homage, as does the much slower pace of those days in which motorcars were owned only by the rich. Agatha Christie and the tropes of Golden Age detective fiction feature. Those who are reading this novel as a traditional whodunit may not be happy after the great drawing room scene, but anyone who knows their Dorothy L. Sayers knows this story arc is within tradition.

But Laurie Bartram's search for the truth about John Emmett's last days is more than a whodunit. It's also a whydunit about some of the things that men who thought they were putting honor first did in the name of nation and loyalty during war. And it's a howdunit about ways in which people can heal after their lives are torn apart by a nation's trauam, or in which they can try to soldier on.

©2011 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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