While I have read many books about World War II and its aftermath, I really haven’t read many about World War I. I’m not sure why. I just haven’t. I know of the horrors of World War I through history classes and documentaries. I know my grandfather fought in that war and there is a button or two from his uniform that my mother kept. Still, novels and biographies of this time have, for the most part, escaped my reading, until a review of The Return of Captain John Emmett caught my attention. Danielle wrote such a compelling review of this first time novel of Elizabeth Speller, that I knew I would soon be reading it.
Easier said than done.
The Return of Captain John Emmett was just released in the States in July and while there are copies in the various libraries in my library system, most of them have been on hold. I did finally secure a copy and held on tight, wanting to finish it but finding time for reading scarce. I will have a hefty fine to pay on Tuesday. It was worth every cent!
The story begins in Kent, England. November. 1920. The railroad station is dark but the platform is filled with people; women, both young with children and old, a few men, soldiers. All are waiting solemnly for a train to pass through, carrying the body of an unknown soldier whose remains are to be buried at Westminster Abbey. An internment symbolic of the thousands of soldiers lost in the battlefields during the Great War.
Laurence Bartram leads a solitary life in a few rented rooms, writing a book about churches. His wife and son died while he was away fighting and he has all but given up on life. He receives a letter from Mary Emmett, the sister of a school chum, who asks him to find out about her brother, John, who has committed suicide while being housed in an asylum. John has what was then termed as shell shock. John also has the burden of a dark secret of war.
With the help of his friend, Charles, a great fan of Agatha Christie, Laurence begins to investigate John’s death. He comes to believe that John’s death wasn’t a suicide after discovering several other deaths, all men who were part of the execution of an officer during the war.
The Return of Captain John Emmett is a beautifully rendered story of a terrible time and horrendous actions. It is at times atmospheric and poetic. It is also horrific and disturbing. It is a mystery with many characters and some name changes and surprises, much in the fashion of Charles’ favorite writer, Miss Christie. Charles, by-the-way, is of great help to Laurence. A man of wealth, he makes many connections that help Laurence along the way.
This book has not set easily with me. I do not mean this against the author. A good book should make you think, question, be happy, or be disturbed. The Return of Captain John Emmett is unsettling in its content; the cruelties of war, both against each other, the innocent people upon whose soil wars are fought, those left at home, the inhumanity of war, and the horror of battle. All the more reason to read it. Please do.
A Work in Progress’s review of The Return of Captain John Emmett with an interview of the author can be found here. It is good reading, and good listening as well. Thank you, Danielle, for leading me to this book.