Of late I've been reading a good deal about World War I and the years just before and after. Elizabeth Speller's The Return of Captain John Emmett fits into the post-war period very neatly. As far as I can determine no recent novel that takes place in the 1920s and so much as mentions the war fails to deal with the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder, which was called battle fatigue after World War II and shell shock after World War I when it was first labeled and identified as a wide-spread phenomenon.
Relying heavily on this theme, Speller's book is not a golden age-imitating cozy. In fact, the cover should tell you that there will be some heavy angst within, with a silhouette of John Emmett (or perhaps it's someone else?) looking very like the famous painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich.
The story starts out very simply. Captain Emmett's sister, Mary, writes to Laurence Bartram, a school friend of her brother, asking him to look into the suicide of her brother. Did he really kill himself? Was it an accident? Could he possibly have been murdered?
The reluctant Bartram hardly knows where to begin, but as Captain Emmett had been admitted to a home for veterans with mental problems and his mood had improved greatly while there, suicide seems unlikely. With his friend, Charles Carfax, a clubman with connections to half of London, Bartram begins to look for recent acquaintances, which means mostly fellow-officers he served with in the war. What they find is surprising and disturbing.
I have been avoiding books with a dark theme lately and although it was clear early on (that cover!) that this wasn't going to be a happy story I couldn't stop reading. All readers recognize that talent in an author to keep you turning the pages even though the book has very little threatening suspense or fast-moving action.Ths first-rate mystery has that quality as well as thoughtful characterizations and lots of 1920s atmosphere.
2012 No 106