Thursday, October 3, 2013
Book Review: The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller
The setting is England a few years after the end of WWI - a misdirected war which left millions dead. England is much changed, still dealing with the bitter memories and often deadly after-effects of the 'war to end all wars'. Having lost a generation of young men on the battlefields of Europe does nothing for a nation's morale and many who returned would rather not speak of their experiences at all - going about in grim silence, internalizing the horrors they faced. 'Stiff upper lip' carried to the extreme. Post traumatic stress disorders were not recognized as such then. Returning men were simply expected to get over it and get on with it.
I'd hoped, going in, that I'd like this book and I did. But I'd hoped to like it even more. Unfortunately it took me a while to warm up to the main character, Lawrence Bartram and his old school friend Charles (who only occasionally shows up to lend a hand, it being more his 'job' to gather information) and I had trouble with the unlikeliness of the two of them solving such an involved series of crimes. These two men are the sorts of characters one longs to become involved with at once - a writer's knack for drawing a reader in immediately is always a definite plus in whatever I'm reading. Here it just takes longer than usual.
I know fictional amateur sleuths must bend all kinds of 'real-life' irrationalities of belief in order to get involved in the mysteries we love to read about, but I kept wondering, really, why Bartram was asked to get involved at all. His background as a World War I officer and once upon a time friendship with the brother of a woman he hasn't seen in a while (and might have had feelings for) doesn't exactly qualify him as a sleuth. The denouement, when it comes, rather happens to him than because of him.
But enough nit-picking.
Laurence Bartram is a well-to-do widower whose wife and child died while he was away at war. Suffering from guilt and self-reproach, he is a self-styled 'recluse' who only occasionally comes in contact with the 'outside' world and when he does it's usually in the company of his friend Charles, also a veteran. When it comes to war, Charles is the more pragmatic sort, eagerly keeping up with fellow members of his club (ex-soldiers and the like), gathering and hoarding gossip. He is an avid mystery reader who enjoys quoting Agatha Christie. Any help he offers Laurence is based more on his reading than on his own deductions. As a character, he doesn't really come to life until late in the book.
When Bartram is asked by a woman from his past to look into the suicide of her troubled brother, Captain John Emmett (the name in the title), Bartram is reluctant (rightly so) but game enough. He and Emmett had once been close friends, but had drifted apart over the years. Still, he is shocked to hear of Emmett's untimely death though apparently it came after a series of mental health issues.
Captain Emmett had been staying in a sanitarium under the care of a sinister doctor.
Before he knows what's what, Bartram has stumbled unto a bevy of dark secrets all seeming to stem from a horrifically botched war-time incident. The thing is, not only is John Emmett dead, but so are several other surviving vets who'd all served together in the same company.
Involved in this enigmatic mystery are a group of war poets, a crippled veteran, the nurse who is now his wife, a grieving Army man whose son was one of the very few English officers ever shot for desertion, an odd father and son psychiatric duo and an old love affair. Result: a string of murders disguised as accidents and a suicide which may or may not be what it seems.
Despite my quibbles, this did develop into an intriguing low-key historical mystery even if the character I remember most and empathize with was tragically long dead as the book began.
I am anticipating the next book in the series, THE STRANGE FATE OF KITTY EASTON. (How's that for a great title?)