Wednesday 20 July 2011

The Return Of Captain John Emmett - Elizabeth Speller

It's 1920 and Great Britain is still recovering from the effects of the Great War. Laurence Bartram is one of the lucky ones who survived although he lost his wife and child. How he's just trying to pick up his life again. He then gets a letter from the sister of an old school friend, John Emmett. John survived the war too but only long enough to then take his own life. His sister wants to know how he could do that after the loss of so many. Laurence helps by investigating the life of Captain John Emmett during and after the war. What exactly did John feel he had to atone for?

Although I have read very little historical fiction I am growing to love it. When done properly it can make for a fantastic read and this book was no exception. Actually I think I have been lucky in this respect. I think I could say that about all of the historical fiction I have read

The 1920's is famous for being glamourised but this book ignores that whole side of it. Sure it shows women as being stronger and more independent and a society that is slowly and reluctantly coming round to that. More importantly it focuses on the impact that the war is still having on both men and women alike. For Laurence he is a little lost. He feels guilty at losing his wife and survivors guilt although he doesn't really show it that much. He sees the end of the war as an opportunity to do something he enjoys but is at a loss for what to do. Solving the mystery of what happened to John Emmett gives him time to make these decisions and so he throws himself into it (also helped along by the pretty Mary Emmett).

One of my favourite characters is best friend to Laurence. He shows another facet of the after effects of war. He thrived during it and is now bored. He needs the excitement in his life still and so dives in and helps Laurence with his investigation by using his connections. I liked him because he added a little light heartedness. He has a love of mysteries and compares the investigation to some popular fiction of the time. In fact he makes several comparisons to Agatha Christie's Poirot.

One of the things I liked about the book is that it showed the women's side. Mary was one of thousands of young women who have been left at home wondering and in fear for the loved ones fighting. Whereas Captain John's nurse, Eleanor Bolitho, saw only too well the effects of the war and is living with those effects every day as her husband lost both his legs.

The mystery itself is a good one and very sad. We start off believing that it has something to do with the convalescent home that John is taken to. From there the story takes a whole new spin and I honestly couldn't predict the outcome. I was kept guessing almost right to the end. The investigation brings up the issue of shell shock which comes a big part of the story. It made for a very sad but interesting read since I think it's something that our society struggles to understand even today.

The book I felt was well researched. The author lists at the back a number of books she used to help research the era and the issues she covers. Not once does she give the war that romantic glamour that some books do. Instead she writes about the horrors that everyone faced both on the front and back home.


  1. I've got this on my shelves but haven't read it yet. Sounds good, I must get to it!

  2. It really is good. I hope you enjoy it. I loved the historical aspect. You can always tell when it's researched well. Makes me appreciate the book all the more.