Shell shock. Battle fatigue. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Society seems to have only started to take the condition seriously within the last few years. In Laurence Bartram’s time, just after the first World War, it was just considered weakness and cowardice and nerves. After the war, Laurence, like so many other men of his generation, struggles to fit back into civilian life. His wife and infant son died while he was in France. His inheritance means that he doesn’t have to work. His only occupation is working, desultorily, on a book about church architecture. Then a letter arrives from an old acquaintance and suddenly, Laurence Bartram is recalled to life to investigate the suicide of a former school friend. I picked up Elizabeth’s Speller’s The Return of Captain John Emmett because I enjoyed The First of July so much. Speller has a knack for brilliant plotting that takes one in unexpected directions.
The letter from Mary Emmett, the eponymous John Emmett’s sister, summons Laurence out to rural England. John has always been a mysterious figure, even to his own family. Even before the war, the Emmetts had somewhat lost track of their only son. They knew he’d been engaged to a German woman, but that’s about the last thing they know for sure about John. He was even more quiet after he got back from the war. The Emmetts thought that some time at a local sanatorium would help bring John back to himself. The next thing they know, John is found in the woods, miles from the hospital, dead from a fatal gunshot. All Mary and her family want to know is why.
Laurence is not a trained detective. He used to be a school teacher before he went to war. Still, Laurence seems to fall into being an investigator like a natural. He has a knack for asking questions and getting people to talk to him. His friend, Charles, a huge reader of mystery novels, gets into the spirit of things and helps Laurence by tapping into his connections when Laurence needs information.
Nothing is straightforward. The more Laurence learns, the less things add up. How did John get so far away from the sanatorium? How did he get a gun? Why are so many of John’s former veterans also dead of gunshot wounds? There are three plausible solutions to what happened to John, but every time Laurence gets close, a new piece of evidence comes up that blows up his nascent theories. As the weeks roll by, it becomes clear that John’s participation in a firing squad during the war is at the heart of John’s later death.
Laurence and Charles have to figure out how to be detectives and what to do once they figure things out. I’ve noticed in a lot of other mystery novels featuring amateur detectives that the amateurs are a little too skilled to be believed. The Return of Captain John Emmett is not a conventional mystery. Nothing is too easy in this book. The whole book is delightfully complex, much more complex than most other mysteries I’ve ever read. It feels more real than most fiction.
I’m glad there’s already a sequel out.