‘The Return of Captain John Emmett’ – Elizabeth Speller
It is 1920 and Laurence Bartram has come through the First World War but lost his young wife and son. He receives a letter from the sister of his old friend, John Emmett. Why, she wonders, did Emmett survive the war only to kill himself? Laurence begins to investigate…
I was a bit dubious when I picked up this book. According to The Independent, this novel is ‘the new ‘Birdsong’ – only better’. And I really enjoyed ‘Birdsong’ so felt this gave Speller’s book high expectations. Suffice to say, it took me a while to get into the pace of the novel and I found myself only really beginning to enjoy the mystery after I had read the first one hundred pages.
This is a good mystery that does not drown in historical fact. Whilst the mystery focuses on the First World War, there are plenty of elements to the novel that make this an enjoyable read. I did find it quite comical that Laurence seems to get so much information from his friend, Charles, and felt that at times, the whole process could be sped up if Laurence simply continued to interview his friend! But, it is as if Speller realised this and introduced more characters into the mix who seemingly could provide more ambiguous clues to the mystery surrounding John Emmett’s apparent suicide.
Whilst I did find the investigations a little exhausting, I couldn’t help but suspect each character that Laurence met in his quest for the truth. The scenes with Chilvers and son I found rather chilling, imagining the treatment carried out at the veterans hospital. Disappointingly, this did just become a product of my over-active imagination and I wonder whether Speller could have expanded this part of the plot a little more to add further substance to the story.
So, is this book like ‘Birdsong’? Personally, I don’t think so. Few flashbacks in first person mean that readers are relying on character versions of events which fuel the mystery that Laurence is investigating. Whilst it provides an insight into WWI, I think Speller’s offering demonstrates the wide-spread effect one event can have on so many people. Overall, I think that this is a good read with a satisfying ending that answers all of your questions.