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The Return of Captain John Emmett by…

The Return of Captain John Emmett

by Elizabeth Speller

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Set in England in the aftermath of World War I, the story here is part mystery and part war story and part "shell shock" story. It revolves around events surrounding the eponymous character and his premature death. Events from during the war and more recently. As a favor to Emmett's sister, the story's protagonist, Laurence Bartram, conducts an investigation into Emmett's last days and eventually gets to the bottom of things, but that doesn't necessarily mean that there are a bunch of happy endings here or that there is complete closure. When all is said and done, the mystery side of the equation here is the weakest part of the story, as its resolution is unoriginal and uninspired. On the other hand, the ways that other plot elements are settled is handled extremely well, with one final twist being perhaps the best of the lot. ( )
  jimgysin | Jun 19, 2017 |
Laurence Bertram may not be the world’s best detective, but he is dogged and loyal. He gets some help from friend Charles and a reporter who was involved in the incident on which all the current crimes hang. Finding out how is incidental to Laurence's remit, but he can’t let go. If you’ve read Rennie Airth’s John Madden series you’ll have some idea of the tortured inner lives of WWI veterans, but you’ll also be reminded of the fourth book in that series because the plots are very similar. Speller got there first though.

It’s a quiet novel that is more character-driven than action-driven, but the mystery will intrigue you. There are enough bad actors, innocent bystanders, unintended victims and unexplained circumstances to go around. Even Mary, who is John’s surviving sibling, comes under suspicion. Speller presents two villains, both of which are pretty repellent, but the reader doesn’t know which is the real one. When we come to find out, it’s a page out of Christie’s book. I hope there are more books to come. ( )
  Bookmarque | Jan 12, 2017 |
Laurence Bartram was one of many whose lives were changed forever by the Great War. He endured the horrors of the Western Front, but he lost his wife in childbirth.

After the war he had no need to work and no purpose. He became reclusive, staying at home, writing a book that he knew he would never finish.

But then he received a letter from somebody that he remembered well, even though he hadn’t seen her for years: Mary, the sister of his school-friend, John Emmett.

Why, she wonders, did her brother survive the war only to kill himself?

Can Lawrence, the only friend her brother ever brought home from school, help her to understand?

Laurence is drawn to Mary and he accepts her commission. It leads him into a complex mystery, and involving – without giving too much away – the nursing home where Emmett was a patient, a group of war poets, and a horrific wartime incident.

The mystery is clever and well structured, but it is rather too reliant on coincidences. And one or two things felt rather contrived. But I could forgive this book those failings. The important things are in it favour.

The story revealed was so powerful, and had so much to say about the strengths and weaknesses of humanity, the burden of knowledge, the horrors of war, and the iniquities of the class system.

Elizabeth Speller’s write beautifully and is a fine storyteller. She has clearly done her research and, through the testimony of her characters, time, place and emotions come to life so vividly.

Those characters, lightly sketched, have faded from my mind, but their stories and their emotions have stayed with me.

And those stories and emotions speak not just for those characters but for a generation. ( )
  BeyondEdenRock | Sep 5, 2016 |
Three years after the end of World War I, British veteran Laurence Bartram is sleepwalking through his life, in theory working on a book on architecture, numb from the loss of his wife and baby on top of all his experiences in the war. The sister of a childhood friend contacts him for help understand why the friend - another veteran - committed suicide, and Laurence begins investigating.

I really liked this book. The mystery was well constructed, but most of the characters stood out as interesting, apart from the mystery. Bartram himself is a good man, but not a particularly good detective - perhaps, not that smart. This is hard to do without making a character annoying, but Speller pulls it off. Beyond the solution to the mystery, the ending of the book was a lot richer and emotionally much more nuanced than I anticipated. ( )
1 vote bezoar44 | Jul 23, 2016 |
Heartwarming and tragic. That is how I would describe the story that Ms. Speller has told in this book. Laurence Bartram is an officer from the First World War who managed to make it out of the "war to end all wars" with no visible injuries. But, as for so many that fought in this terrible war, he has experienced and seen things that he cannot ever forget, and he has lost so much, that it has left huge scars on his psyche. He is managing to exist and is trying to write a book on British churches, which helps him feel that he is keeping busy, but he feels that he really isn't any longer a contributing member in the post-war English society. Then a sister of an old school friend comes to him to ask him to look into the circumstances of the apparent suicide of her brother Captain John Emmett. Laurence is reluctant to come out of his self-imposed exile, but he does so because John Emmott was a close school friend and he hadn't seen or heard of him since many years before the war. As Laurence digs he finds long buried secrets and tragic occurrences that occurred on the western front. These secrets have caused much turmoil and unhappiness to the surviving members of those who had been involved in the unspeakable event. Laurence discovers that the secrets are what has been causing the death and destruction that he's uncovering in his investigation. This book is so complex. Not only is there an incredibly tricky mystery, but Ms. Speller so eloquently depicts the public and the private tragedies that result from any war. It's all too common, and still wars continue in this world, with no end in sight. They leave a truly horrible legacy, and destroy so many lives. But the book ends with a sense of hope, at least for Laurence. He begins to feel that he can get on with his life again. There is hope in the darkness. There is a sense of optimism that life can go on, even though it will never be the same. ( )
  Romonko | Jan 16, 2016 |
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For my brother, Richard, and for my nephews Dominic, Tristan, William, Barnaby and Charlie, who, had they been born exactly one hundred years earlier, might all have found themselves on the Western Front.
You were only David's father,
But I had fifty sons,
When we went up in the evening
Under the arch of the guns.

Lieutenant Ewart Alan Mackintosh
(died Cambrai 1917)
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In years to come, Laurence Bartram would look back and think that the event that really changed everything was not the war, nor the attack at Rosieres, nor even the loss of his wife, but the return of John Emmett into his life.
They gathered in the dark long before the train arrived at the small station. (Prologue)
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1920. The Great War has been over for two years, and it has left a very different world from the Edwardian certainties of 1914. Following the death of his wife and baby and his experiences on the Western Front, Laurence Bartram has become something of a recluse. Yet death and the aftermath of the conflict continue to cast a pall over peacetime England, and when a young woman he once knew persuades him to look into events that apparently led her brother, John Emmett, to kill himself, Laurence is forced to revisit the darkest parts of the war. As Laurence unravels the connections between Captain Emmett's suicide, a group of war poets, a bitter regimental feud and a hidden love affair, more disquieting deaths are exposed. Even at the moment Laurence begins to live again, it dawns on him that nothing is as it seems, and that even those closest to him have their secrets ...
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Mary Emmett's brother John, an officer during the recently ended World War I, has apparently killed himself while in the care of a remote veterans' hospital, and Mary needs to know why. She contacts an old flame, Laurence Bartram, who has turned his back on the world to help her find answers.… (more)

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