When Captain John Emmett returns from France at the end of World War I, his mother and sister are worried about his mental condition. John is suffering from shell-shock, which is causing him to become aggressive and violent. After spending some time in a nursing home, John escapes and is later found dead in a nearby wood. It is assumed that he committed suicide.
John’s sister, Mary, contacts one of her brother’s old school friends, Laurence Bartram, in the hope that he can help her discover what really happened to her brother. Why would a man who had survived the horrors of the war shoot himself two years later? As Laurence starts to investigate, he begins to wonder whether someone else was behind John’s death.
The Return of Captain John Emmett is a fascinating story. It works well as a historical fiction novel, with its portrayal of the people of 1920s Britain coming to terms with the aftermath of World War I. But it’s also a gripping psychological mystery in which Laurence Bartram reluctantly takes on the role of detective to investigate the circumstances surrounding his friend’s death. There are clues, suspects, red herrings and all the other elements that make up a compelling and well-structured detective story.
The book is also an interesting and poignant study into the effects, both long-term and short-term, that the war had on individuals and their families. How people came back from the war an entirely different person to when they went away. How men dealt with the memories of the atrocities they witnessed. How their wives felt about the part of their husbands’ lives that they had been unable to share. How people were left with physical disabilities and had to learn to adjust.
We are given insights into the thoughts and emotions of a First World War soldier and we learn what it was like to be part of a firing squad. The War Poets are also touched upon, and so are the loyalties and friendships formed in British public schools.
Due to the subject and setting, the book had a sombre and depressing feel, yet I found myself really enjoying it. As the mystery surrounding John Emmett’s death became more and more complex and involved, I was completely drawn into Laurence Bartram’s investigations. The plot relies quite heavily on coincidences in places, but not so much that it spoiled the story for me at all. I loved it and will definitely be looking out for more novels from Elizabeth Speller!
I received a review copy of this book from NetGalley courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.