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THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN JOHN EMMETT
By Elizabeth Speller
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 5, 2011 ($26.00 )
Review by Larry Jung (April 2011)
Elizabeth Speller has crafted a full-bodied period mystery worthy of Masterpiece Theatre. She effectively evokes the cultural, social, and political watershed the English experienced after World War I. Through the character of Laurence Bartram, Speller explores the emotional turmoil of those who left for war as romantics, became cynics in the trenches, and returned haunted by nightmares and guilt. They were conveniently called the "Lost Generation." World War I had forever shattered the social foundations they had based their ideas of correctness, social order, even what determined happiness and success in life. "The war had changed things: for him [Laurence] life before 1914 was a closed world he could never reach back and touch. He could recall banal fragments of people but not the whole. ...His memories were just a series of tableaux, disconnected from the present." Laurence could cry out not for the dead in the trenches but out of self-pity of the things he had enjoyed that had been taken away from him. He has begun to move forward with his life.
From out of nowhere Laurence receives a letter from the sister of a causal school mate of his before the war. Mary, the sister of the former Captain John Emmett, wants Laurence to look into the death of John. She doesn't accept that her brother took his own life. Laurence is immediately infatuated with Mary. More to have an excuse to see Mary, he consents to look into John's death than any past friendship he had with John. With Charles, his social gadfly friend, Laurence discovers the mystery of John Emmett reaches back to the execution of a British officer during the war.
THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN JOHN EMMETT is as much social history as mystery. At the interview Laurence had with Dr. Chilvers, who cared for John Emmett right before Emmett died, Chilvers observes that he treated many men back from war in shock that went in believing war would be something like Troy. But war wasn't. They came back in shock, bewilderment, and with a sense of betrayal. Post war England has discarded its damaged soldiers. Former Major William Bolitho has yet to find employment. He had been an architect before the war. He told Laurence he hoped to find a job to allow him to work again. There was so much going on in architecture that was exciting and innovative that Bolitho would like to be a part of. But his inquiries for work had so far come to nothing. Still he keeps up with the professional journals. Bolitho lost both legs during the war. The men, who left the farms to fight, return to the farms with not much more than their private sense of pride that they did their duty.
I enjoyed the rich sense of place and time Elizabeth Speller created. The character of Laurence Bartram is an admirable tour guide to this long gone world. The story is one to sit back and enjoy. I recommend THE RETURN OF JOHN EMMETT to those who enjoy British crime novels as well as those who are interested in the period after World War I.
Edcom: This book is scheduled for publication July 5, 2011. It may be pre-ordered from online book dealers.
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