Elizabeth Speller joins mystery writers like Jacqueline Winspear in setting her story immediately after World War I, filled with characters fractured by the Great War and trying to pick up the pieces. This debut novel has everything you want in a good mystery: well-developed characters you can’t predict, suspense, love, and twists. It also takes a new approach that works.
Unlike most mysteries in which the “detective” has special training and skills that draw him or her to solving crimes, Speller’s sleuth has no background or talent for the job. When John Emmett’s sister Mary asks Bartram Laurence to look into the mysterious circumstances surrounding her brother’s death, he isn’t sure he’s interested. After all, he’d lost contact with John even before they both went off to fight their separate versions of the war. He never felt like he really knew John at all. But Laurence is drawn to Mary, and he needs a sense of direction in his life. He is adrift after suffering the double calamity of war in the trenches and the death of his wife and son—although Laurence does not have unambiguous feelings of sorrow even for this tragedy. Speller is truly depicting the lost generation, and she captures it with subtly and complexity.
The amateur quality of Laurence’s sleuthing actually deepens the book. His likeable but flawed character and his struggle to regain happiness (mirrored in other characters in the book) are the materials from which he must sort out why his friend died. It feels very real and immediate. Without the usual sleuth’s bag of tricks we are not the least convinced Laurence will ever make sense of the odd events at the conclusion of John Emmett’s life, but increasingly through the book, we desperately want him to.
In this book friendship offers a kind of saving grace counterpointed against the dark legacy of the war, even though none of the friendships portrayed are particularly ideal. But that’s the appeal, I think. No idealization, just real people carrying on as best they can with who and what they have to hand. Mary and Laurence’s relationship is deeply compelling without any trace of the saccharine. There is another fascinating friendship grown into a marriage between a nurse and a soldier that is both very much of the period and full of insight into human nature. Fortunately for any chance of Laurence actually solving this mystery, he has a close friend named Charles who, while frequently annoying and always interfering, also has extensive social connections to apply the problem. Charles’s restless energy juxtaposes with Laurence’s languid depression to form one whole psyche—another reflection of the period that neither is whole on his own—and together they might just achieve something without getting killed first.
The Return of Captain John Emmett will entertain you with its skilled story telling and impress you with the sophistication of its portrayal of life after the Great War.