July 12, 2011

A moving story of life after war

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In her fine debut mystery novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett, Elizabeth Speller has evoked the world of post-World War I Britain, its mood of hope and optimism contrasting with one of hopelessness and depression felt by many returning veterans who survived the horrific conflict. One young veteran, Laurence Bertram—a former officer—has come home feeling the senselessness of what he and thousands of others have gone through, wanting only to retreat from the nightmare of his experience.

However, a letter arrives from the sister of a former school chum, requesting help in discovering why her brother, John Emmett, also a recovering veteran, has apparently taken his own life. Laurence, aided by his friend Charles, begins to look for some answers. What seems at first an obvious case of suicide due to depression turns into something quite different.

The search begins with a small stash of Emmett’s belongings, including a melancholy photograph taken at the battlefront, a small book of poetry and a school scarf. There’s also Emmett’s will, naming a curious assortment of legatees. Laurence begins with these slim leads, and the quest turns into a many-layered mystery that’s true to each carefully drawn character who becomes part of the tapestry of events.

Laurence and Charles question several people who seem connected by a trench collapse during battle and a horrific execution by military firing squad. The sense of tragedy is deepened by battlefield reminiscences and witnesses’ stories. Confounding the search is a series of seemingly unconnected post-war deaths, but these begin to form a pattern, and the unfolding events lead Laurence and Charles inexorably to a final and devastating conclusion.

More than just a well-crafted story, however, this is a beautifully written narrative. Speller is attentive to the ways in which actions undertaken in fear and under stress can widen to encompass many others, like ripples that spread when a stone falls into water. She drops us into Britain’s rain-soaked autumn countryside and gray city streets, and into the lives of people who bear the scars of war. No character is superficial, and each fits in, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle coming whole before our eyes.

I opened this book with some small hesitation, as it is a first novel written by an unknown writer. However, I read every page with deepening pleasure and appreciation for this gifted author. 

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