I read the second Laurence Bartram mystery by Elizabeth Speller before I read the first. I so enjoyed The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton that I returned to the scene of the crime, so to speak, and read the first one, The Return of Captain John Emmett, published in 2010.
I could summarize my reaction in three words: What a story!
Laurance Bartram is slowly recovering from his experiences in World War I and the deaths of his wife and son in childbirth. He lives alone in a flat in the Bloomsbury district of London near the British Museum, made affordable by being the beneficiary of his wife’s will. He has a sister who moved to India with her husband when he was 13, and his parents both died. It was a school friend, John Emmett, who took the bereaved boy and folded him into his own family. What occupies Laurance’s time is writing a book on old church architecture, which barely holds his attention.
John Emmett survived the war as well, but had been confined to a mental institution for shell shock and depression (what today we call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). After escaping from the home more than once, he’s found dead some miles away, a suicide.
Bartram receives a letter from John’s sister Mary, asking him to visit their home near Cambridge and tell them what he knew of John’s life. While he knows very little – the two had gone their separate ways after school – he goes. And he finds himself agreeing to look into the circumstances of John’s death for the family, and especially for Mary, whom he finds seriously attracting. Part of what is prompting him is Emmett’s will, which left several bequests to people the family had never heard of.
Where his inquiries lead is back to the war, and specifically an unusual incident – the court marital and firing squad death of an officer. John Emmett had rather unwillingly directed the firing squad. As Bartram tries to contact the other soldiers involved in the firing squad, he finds that nearly all of them are dead.
John Emmett’s death looks less and less a suicide.
Like The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, Elizabeth Speller’s first Laurance Bartram mystery is tightly researched around World War I and the period immediately following. It’s so well done that trench life becomes and remains real for the reader, who becomes the prime spectator for the firing squad episode. The story becomes tense, riveting and thoroughly enjoyable, the same qualities Speller displayed in the second novel.
What Speller has done, of course, is to provide a slice of military history largely forgotten, and embedded it in an enthralling story. She effectively explains key elements of the war, the role played by the British class structure, and what life was like for soldiers and officers alike.
The Return of Captain John Emmett is one fine mystery.
The true story that inspired The Return of Captain John Emmett.
Photograph: A World War I firing squad.