I read Litlove’s review of The Return of Captain John Emmett last year, and it convinced me (as so many of her wonderful reviews do) to put the book on my TBR right away. Somehow, though, I didn’t take on board that this was crime fiction, even though Litlove says so in her review and it says “a mystery” on the front cover of the book! So it was entirely my own fault that I was a bit surprised to be reading this rich, atmospheric novel of the first World War and to find myself in the middle of a finely-crafted mystery.
Laurence Bartram has survived his war with no more than the usual complaints: nightmares, bad memories, and a loss of his sense of purpose in the new order. His parents are dead and his sister has emigrated to Australia, so he is alone, though he hardly feels it, as a man gets used to amputation after a time. Into this life-not-life drops an acquaintance from long ago: a letter from Mary Emmett, who has been stunned by the suicide of her brother John, a former friend of Laurence’s. He had had troubles after the war, but they’d thought he was getting better… could Laurence possibly help them find out what he was going through in his last days?
Laurence didn’t know the dead man well — they parted ways after their school days — but he likes Mary and wants to help her, so he agrees to look into the matter, to the extent he can. And soon he is appalled to find the wretched story of a deserter behind what looked like a simple story of shell-shock; a story of sadism and revenge and deaths that never should have come to pass. In more than one way, Laurence discovers that the worst damage is not always inflicted by the Hun.
Speller has done a wonderful job enriching this book. There are lovely little points of interest around every turn, about postwar mental hospitals and the treatment of shell shock (check out Pat Barker’s Regeneration series if you want some wonderful writing about that), about wartime poetry — not all of which was written by Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen — and about the overall effect of the war on the population. The characterization is excellent, whether it’s a major character or a minor one. The mystery was beautifully structured, each part of it genuinely bearing on the solution — there weren’t any red herrings, but it still took a lot of mental effort to put it all together, and the very last piece was still a surprise. I know I never go wrong with Litlove’s suggestions, but this one was particularly good, and I will certainly be looking for the next one in what looks like it’s going to be a series.