The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller

World War I has ended and Laurence Bartram has returned home, wanting only to put the horrors of the war behind him. He is haunted by not only the sum total of all that happened over his months and years in service during the war, but specifically ordering his troops over the top in France at the moment of the joint death of his wife and unborn son in childbirth. He has sufficient money to retreat from the world into a reclusive life, with only one friend, Charles.

He is pulled from this shell by the request of the sister of an acquaintance, the Captain John Emmett of the book’s title, to investigate her brother’s death. Emmett also returned from service in the Great War, but was much more profoundly affected psychologically than Bartram; suicide is a distinct possibility but Mary Emmett believes there is more to the death than the police see. As Bartram investigates, he finds Emmett’s death is somehow connected to both what in modern parlance would be called a “‘zine” of collected amateur poets and to the botched execution of a sergeant, on the questionable pretext that he was a deserter. Others connected with that execution have also died violent deaths which, taken individually, might have been accidents but taken in aggregate cannot possibly be other than intentional acts by someone motivated by revenge on behalf of the executed soldier.

Or are they?

This was vaguely reminiscent of the Inspector Ian Rutledge series by “Charles Todd”1; the setting and themes were approximately similar in that both authors deal with the psychological aftermath of serving in a war zone as much as they do the physical issues. However, a crucial difference is that Rutledge hears the voice of the soldier he executed for insubordination. Bartram has no such specific haunting, but something closer to shell-shock2, as did other soldiers returning from the trenches. This is something other authors have touched upon also—Sayers had her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, suffer from it—though Sayers’ descriptions of it were apparently based on dealing directly with the soldiers themselves returned from those trenches. Todd and Speller have the distance of decades to separate them from the immediacy of that war; that said, it’s an issue that soldiers returning from subsequent wars have had to face, though it may be known by other names.

Speller does provide her detective a sidekick, Charles, who provides a bit of, not comic relief, but a contrasting anchor to counteract the psychological morass absorbing Bartram. I do appreciate the contrast between Bartram and his friend assisting in the investigation, another veteran of the Great War; Charles was not so deeply and traumatically affected by events as Bartram and Emmett, but instead tries out detective skills he’s learned by reading contemporary authors such as the newly published Christie.

As for what to read next, Todd and Sayers are logical choices if it were the psychological aspects of returned soldiers trying to adjust to civilian life that intrigued the reader, though the two authors are very different: the Rutledge series is much darker and angst driven, while Sayers’ Wimsey seems almost lightweight and…well… whimsical3 in comparison to the other two authors’ work. Another possibility is Anne Perry’s Inspector Monk series, set in the Victorian era rather than the period immediately following World War I. There is also a subsequent book by Speller about Bartram’s continued investigations, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton.

Washington Times

1pseudonym for a mother/son writing team
2today, we’d call it combat stress reaction, a form of PTSD
3with apologies to the Sayers fans, I had to make that pun! (I’m sure I’m not the first.)


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