Until John Emmett rose from the dead into his life, Laurence had almost convinced himself the war was history but now he saw that its aftershock rumbled on and on, and that peace had nothing to do with signatures and seals on a paper.Although I’m only posting it now, this was the first review I wrote post-dissertation. The past few months rusted my review-writing muscles a little bit, so I decided to ease my way back in by using a review questionnaire created by Dewey, a much loved and missed book blogger who passed away in 2008. Dewey’s blog is sadly no longer available, but the questionnaire was backed up by Joanne at The Book Zombie so that bloggers could carry on using it.
Plot summary: The Return of Captain John Emmett is a historical mystery set in 1920 Britain and dealing with the repercussions of the Great War. Laurence Bartram, our sleuth, survived the war unharmed, but he lost his wife and baby son while he was away. He thinks he has put the war behind him, but one day he’s contacted by Mary Emmett, the sister of his old school friend John Emmett, who wants someone to help her make sense of why her brother took his own life. Laurence’s investigations put him in contact with a world of long-term personal and social consequences and unhealed wounds – including perhaps his own.
What did you like most about the book?
First of all, I liked the setting. You only need to say “1920’s London” for my ears to perk up, and Speller is great with the period detail. I also liked the way the novel dealt with themes such as shell shock or post traumatic stress disorder, issues of class in the military, psychiatric care, the subversive aspects of wartime poetry, and early twentieth-century notions of bravery and cowardice.
We expect a book written today, even if it’s a work of historical fiction, to be sympathetic to characters that show signs of fear in a war context almost by default, considering what we know now about how people react to highly traumatic situations. But the most satisfying explorations of the theme are the ones that remain sympathetic while also acknowledging the complications that existed then – what was at stake for those involved in terms of reputation, social standing, psychological repercussions for their fellow officers or soldiers and families, and so on.
The Return of Captain John Emmett does all of the above considerably well. As I write this, I keep thinking of my ongoing discussions with Jodie about how the second season of Downton Abbey will handle the same themes. It will be fun to compare the two narratives over the next few weeks.
What did you like least?
I can’t quite put my finger on why although I mostly enjoyed this novel I didn’t love it quite as much as I was hoping to. There was nothing much wrong with it, exactly, but it lacked that extra edge somehow. Perhaps the fact that I didn’t quite connect with Laurence Bartram was the reason, but I’ll get into that when I answer the next question.
What did you think of the main character?
Laurence Bartram struck me as a bit of a Nondescript Officer with a Traumatic Past. By the end of the book I didn’t really feel like I’d gotten to know him, even though I know I was supposed to. Much of the emotional power of The Return of Captain John Emmett comes from the fact that as Laurence investigates what happened to his old friend, something in him breaks loose and he’s forced to confront the fact that what he went through had an emotional cost. I suppose that if I’d felt more invested in Laurence’s storyline, I’d have found the ending quite moving, but the truth is that I didn’t. Whatever the reason, his story never really resonated with me. Still, I was interested in the main mystery, and that alone kept me reading.
Any other particularly interesting characters?
I really liked the two main female characters, Eleanor and Mary Emmett. Eleanor is a former nurse that Laurence meets over the course of his investigations, and who knows more than she’s initially letting on; Mary is of course John Emmett’s sister. Both are smart, competent women, and both feel the consequences of the war in very personal ways. I don’t want to give the whole plot away, but suffice to say that they were both affected in more ways than are initially apparent, and take on the role of caretakers of wounded men.
Even more interesting was the fact that Elizabeth Speller used these characters to explore the way the war created silences and divisions between the sexes that had to do with what men and women were expected to be able to handle, and which of course forbid any real intimacy. The men didn’t really talk about what they had seen or endured, and the women were taught not to ask, which only created further distance. But as Mary eventually tells Laurence, “We’re women, not children”. The silence needed to be broken if any healing was to take place.
Share a quote from the book:
‘None of us were brave, ever,’ said Byers. ‘Bravery’s when you’ve got a choice.’
What did you think of the ending?
The solution to the mystery, or rather the way Laurence discovers it, really stretches believability, but I thought the motivations behind everything that was happening were interesting, and I liked the thematic implications. As I was saying before, the ending to Laurence’s personal story left me a little cold, but I think others readers may feel differently.
Which of your readers are most likely to enjoy this book? Why?
Any fans of Maisie Dobbs — this is quite similar, only more sober in tone (and to me personally much more satisfying). Anyone who likes historical mysteries might enjoy this, especially readers who prefer their mysteries with a bit of social commentary on the side.
The Return of Captain John Emmett reads like a stand-alone, but there’s a second novel starring Laurence Bartram called The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton. So if you’re looking for a new series of 1920’s mystery, especially one darker and with more depth than Daisy Dalrymple or Dandy Gilver, this would be a good bet.
They read it too: She Reads Novels, A Work in Progress, Whimpulsive, Fleur Fish Reads, A Garden Carried in the Pocket
(Have I missed yours?)