The Return of Captain John Emmett
Elizabeth Speller
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Buy *The Return of Captain John Emmett* by Elizabeth Speller online

The Return of Captain John Emmett
Elizabeth Speller
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
448 pages
July 2011
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Novels detailing the collateral damage of The Great War seem to be the fashion of the moment, with Speller contributing her own detailed exploration of battle’s bloody aftermath. Three years after the War has ended, only Captain John Emmett knows the truth behind the murder of the disgraced Lieutenant Hart. Now John Emmett is dead, rumored to have committed suicide in the woods just outside of the Holmwood nursing home in Fairford, Gloucestershire.

In the years to come, Laurence Bartram will look back and think the event that changed everything was not the war, nor even the loss of his wife, Louise, but the return of John Emmett into his life. A thoughtful, intelligent man who is writing a book on London churches, Laurence rents a small flat in Great Ormand Street, trying desperately not to revisit the smells and tremors of war.

With his own life full of unanswered questions, a letter arrives in unfamiliar handwriting. The letter is from John’s sister Mary Emmett, “a lively brown-haired girl with none of her brother’s reserve,” telling Laurence that John died six months ago; he was like “a stranger who died, he’d left us years ago.” She also includes a photograph of soldiers. The image is of poor quality, the men mostly young and unsmiling. But who took the photograph, and why did John have it with him at his death?

There’s also the fact that John died in a dreadful way then left all his money to several people he knew, including a complete stranger. Laurence offers to see if he can find out anything by asking whether any of their old Oxford mates had heard anything from him since the war. Disoriented to by this encounter with Mary, Lawrence's bourgeoning attraction to her gives the story depth and offers a basis for considering the strange fate of John.

Hoping to simply give Mary some sense of her brother’s war, Lawrence follow where the trail leads, to the home of Eleanor and William Bolitho, William bearing the irreversible scares of battle. The revelation that John was trapped in a trench fall and that Eleanor nursed him at both periods in his life allows Lawrence to see that war’s aftershocks rumble on and on.

Memories become a series of tableaux disconnected from the present while distant guns chime like thunder. The situation is complicated by Emmett’s rumored confusion in the face of a firing squad and a group of naive, inexperienced soldiers who were called upon to shoot a fellow officer. Even in the face of imminent death, the nuances are always there: snobbery, prejudice, and bullying, all transported from the playing fields and drawing rooms of English society.

While the pacing often lags, tension comes from dialogue as Laurence struggles to articulate the potentially fruitful enquiries he plans with Charles, his privileged sidekick. Highlighting the terrible cost of war, this tale is chiefly about nobility of the spirit, and the fact that the essential aspects of human nature remain unchanged, even in peace-time.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2011

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