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Book Author: Elizabeth Speller

THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN JOHN EMMETT by Elizabeth Speller: Book Review

They called it The Great War or The War to End All Wars, but it was neither. The better name for it, the name that obviously could come only after 1939, was World War I.  It was a horror.  In Great Britain alone, over half a million men died in action or from wounds, and a quarter of a million more were missing in action, their bodies never recovered.

Many men returned home in pitiable condition, with mental and physical problems that British society had difficulty coming to terms with.  One of these men is the one whose name appears in the title of this novel, Captain John Emmett.

As the story opens, Captain Emmett has been dead for several months, dead by his own hand. His sister Mary writes to Laurence Bartram, a former schoolmate and friend of her brother’s, wanting to meet him to see if he can shed some light on why her brother, having endured the war, had to be institutionalized upon his return and then committed suicide.

Faced with his own problems, Laurence Bartram is reluctant to investigate.  While he was at the front, his young wife and their newborn son died in the hospital.   That tragedy propelled Laurence into a mild depression, and he also has a total lack of interest in making any plans for his future.  However, remembering the kindness of the Emmett family when he and John attended the same school as adolescents, Laurence agrees to investigate the circumstances that led to John’s death.

There’s an incredible amount of social and military history in this novel.  I find the era of World War I fascinating, as it led to so many changes in British society. The rigid class system was very much in effect before, during, and even after the war, and it’s amazing to read of the stratification of men according to their birth.  Only men who graduated from “public” schools (which Americans call “private” schools) could become officers, no matter how incompetent they might be or how much more worthy the lower caste men under them might be.

The main issue around Captain John Emmett’s death seems to revolve around the execution he was forced to be part of, the almost unheard execution of an Army officer. Only three British officers were executed during World War I; over 300 British and Commonwealth non-commissioned soldiers were sentenced to death, although most sentences were commuted.  However, the disparity was still great, as if the military minds could barely conceive of an officer doing something that warranted the ultimate punishment.

Laurence’s investigation proves more difficult than he had imagined.  Every person he speaks to in the course of trying to unravel the reason behind John’s death has lost someone in the war–a son, brother, or husband.  Talking about it three years later only reopens the wounds, and many don’t want that.  But Laurence persists, along with his friend Charles, partly because his friend’s sister has asked him to, partly due to guilt over his own relatively safe war, and partly because he has nothing else to occupy his time.  But Laurence finds that his questioning takes him to places he’d rather not go.

Elizabeth Speller’s The Return of Captain John Emmett is a fascinating read. The novel was chosen as one of the Wall Street Journal‘s Top Ten Mysteries of 2011, and it’s easy to see why.  The writing is moving, the book is well researched, and the story of the men who went to war and the families they left behind resonates today.

You can read more about Elizabeth Speller at her web site.