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gertrude

April 2018

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The Return of Captain John Emmett



I picked up a mint condition paperback copy of Elizabeth Speller’s book a couple of days ago, started it almost at once and then could hardly put it down. I see the book has been out for a while so I’m behind the times as usual but I hadn’t read any reviews and didn’t know what to expect.

This is really a mystery story; an attempt to discover the truth about a single event in the First World War. That makes it reminiscent of the terrific A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot. Laurence Bartram has come through the war without serious injury. His wife and baby son are dead; he’s writing a book in a desultory way; his life seems to have little purpose. Then the sister of an old school fellow contacts him. Her brother John also survived the war but with severe psychological problems. He absconded from a nursing home and then killed himself and Mary wants to know why. She gives Laurence what turns out to be a collection of clues: old photographs of unidentified people, meaningless lists of names, drawings, poems.

Laurence feels he didn’t really know John well but takes on the task, little dreaming where it will lead. The following up of the clues, the piecing together of scraps of information from different sources, the strange connectedness of things all make for a gripping story. Laurence is helped on the trail by his friend Charles, ‘who had seemed old at thirteen and would seem young at eighty’. I took a great fancy to Charles and his cheerful, practical attitude and surprising toughness. The combination of detective story with tales of the horror of war and the problems of shell shock and what we now call PTSD works really well, and just when you think all ends have been tied up, the book still finishes ambiguously, showing how hard it is to know everything about the past.

Anyone who read my recent ‘please shut up about the First World War’ rant may wonder why I chose to read a book specifically about the aftermath of the war. There’s a great difference between a properly researched book like this one and those novels which, without being *about* the war, use it in a sloppy way as mere colour to the story, hoping to provoke a kneejerk sympathetic reaction in the reader. I explained why I so dislike this in a post I wrote for Armistice Day in 2008, here.

Comments

(Anonymous)

The Return of Capt John Emmett

Well, this is the third post in a row that I've been able to comment upon! I loved this book, one of the three best books read so far trhis year (the others are Elizabeth Speller's second novel, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton and Natasha Solomons' The Novel in the Viola) and I agree totally about Laurence's friend, Charles, a lovely character. If you enjoyed this then I am sure you will also love The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton.
Incidentally, it was my 'anonymous' comment about perfume and memories that I posted (mentioning Elizabeth Arden's Memoire Cherie fragrance) ... I simply forgot to add my name.
Margaret P

Re: The Return of Capt John Emmett

I'm keen to read the next book now. Funnily enough, there was a nice copy of The Novel in the Viola right next to Captain Emmett but of course I'd already bought it new.

A Very Long Engagement

Fantastic book and the film remains one of my favourites. The cinematography is simply stunning and the story so touching. I'm almost tempted to get the DVD out and watch it now!

Glad you are enjoying your paperback find :)

Re: A Very Long Engagement

I haven't seen the film; perhaps it will be on TV one day.
It's such a treat to find a book you want to read all the time!