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The Return Of Captain John Emmett [Paperback]

Elizabeth Speller
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (87 customer reviews)
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Book Description

7 April 2011
1920. The Great War has been over for two years, and it has left a very different world from the Edwardian certainties of 1914. Following the death of his wife and baby and his experiences on the Western Front, Laurence Bartram has become something of a recluse. Yet death and the aftermath of the conflict continue to cast a pall over peacetime England, and when a young woman he once knew persuades him to look into events that apparently led her brother, John Emmett, to kill himself, Laurence is forced to revisit the darkest parts of the war. As Laurence unravels the connections between Captain Emmett's suicide, a group of war poets, a bitter regimental feud and a hidden love affair, more disquieting deaths are exposed. Even at the moment Laurence begins to live again, it dawns on him that nothing is as it seems, and that even those closest to him have their secrets . . .

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Product details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Virago (7 April 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1844086097
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844086092
  • Product Dimensions: 12.6 x 3.5 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (87 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 75,033 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Elizabeth Speller lived in Berlin, Rome and Paris before reading Classics at Cambridge. She has written for publications as varied as the Independent, Big Issue, TLS and Vogue and has taught at the universities of Cambridge, Birmingham and Bristol. She currently has a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at Warwick and divides her life between Gloucestershire and Greece. Her first novel was THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN JOHN EMMETT which was followed by THE STRANGE FATE OF KITTY EASTON.

Product Description


'The new BIRDSONG - only better' --INDEPENDENT

'This fabulously enjoyable novel has absolutely everything. Speller's writing is gorgeous, her research immaculate and very lightly worn. Sheer bliss' --Kate Saunders, THE TIMES

`With its portrait of a war-blighted nation, Elizabeth Speller's gripping first novel shares territory with Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy . . . This is a remarkable piece of storytelling . . . Equally impressive is Speller's portrait of a fearful and class-ridden England after the armistice' --FINANCIAL TIMES

Book Description

* London, just after WW1, but the men and women caught up in the battle have not yet found peace * 'Covering death, poetry, a bitter regimental feud and a hidden love affair, it's set to be the new BIRDSONG - only better' INDEPENDENT

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Mystery rooted in the Great War 23 May 2011
"In years to come, Laurence Bartram would look back and think that the event that really changed his life was not the war or the attack at Rosières, nor even the loss of his wife, but the return of Captain John Emmett ..."

Laurence Bartram is one of many whose lives were changed forever by the Great War. He endured the horrors of the Western Front, but he lost his wife in childbirth.After the war he had no need to work and no purpose. He became reclusive, staying at home, writing a book that he knew he would never finish.

But then he received a letter from somebody that he remembered well, even though he hadn't seen her for years: Mary, the sister of his school-friend, John Emmett. Why, she wonders, did her brother survive the war only to kill himself? Can Lawrence, the only friend her brother ever brought home from school, help her to understand?

Laurence is drawn to Mary and he accepts her commission. It leads him into a complex mystery, and involving - without giving too much away - the nursing home where Emmett was a patient, a group of war poets, and a horrific wartime incident.

The mystery is clever and well structured, but it is rather too reliant on coincidences. And one or two things felt rather contrived. But I could forgive this book those failings. The important things are in it favour.

The story revealed was so powerful, and had so much to say about the strengths and weaknesses of humanity, the burden of knowledge, the horrors of war, and the iniquities of the class system.

Elizabeth Speller's write beautifully and is a fine storyteller. She has clearly done her research and, through the testimony of her characters, time, place and emotions come to life so vividly.

Those characters, lightly sketched, have faded from my mind, but their stories and their emotions have stayed with me. And those stories and emotions speak not just for those characters but for a generation.
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37 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating mystery 8 Jan 2011
When Captain John Emmett returns from France at the end of World War I, his mother and sister are worried about his mental condition. John is suffering from shell-shock, which is causing him to become aggressive and violent. After spending some time in a nursing home, John escapes and is later found dead in a nearby wood. It is assumed that he committed suicide.

John's sister, Mary, contacts one of her brother's old school friends, Laurence Bartram, in the hope that he can help her discover what really happened to her brother. Why would a man who had survived the horrors of the war shoot himself two years later? As Laurence starts to investigate, he begins to wonder whether someone else was behind John's death.

The Return of Captain John Emmett is a fascinating story. It works well as a historical fiction novel, with its portrayal of the people of 1920s Britain coming to terms with the aftermath of World War I. But it's also a gripping psychological mystery in which Laurence Bartram reluctantly takes on the role of detective to investigate the circumstances surrounding his friend's death. There are clues, suspects, red herrings and all the other elements that make up a compelling and well-structured detective story.

The book is also an interesting and poignant study into the effects, both long-term and short-term, that the war had on individuals and their families. How people came back from the war an entirely different person to when they went away. How men dealt with the memories of the atrocities they witnessed. How their wives felt about the part of their husbands' lives that they had been unable to share. How people were left with physical disabilities and had to learn to adjust.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Much more than it seems 10 April 2010
I was surprised that one reviewer thought the background to this mystery was just dressing up. I'd say the atmosphere of 1920's London was the very best thing here, perhaps it's more a book for a lover of good historical fiction than strictly a whodunit (which it isn't really, more a whydunit). When I was reading it I felt completely absorbed into the period. What the book deals with beautifully, and what gives it its emotional punch, is the revealing of the long effects of the war on people back home as well as the returning soldiers. There are undercurrents on the grip of class, the cruelty of military executions and the fate of those with shell shock. The plot worked for me and the characters gripped me, especially the hero as he slowly wakes up comes to terms with his losses and finds his way back to a full life again and those around him, some of who succeed and some fail tragically.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars another author mining the WW1 vein 22 July 2011
By Viv
These mysteries set post WWI are becoming a genre in their own right - think Jacqueline Winspear, Frances Brody, Charles Todd ... no doubt there are others I haven't discovered yet. Elizabeth Speller chucks in all the usual ingredients of shell shock, firing squads, feisty nurses etc etc - in fact I think she throws in a bit too many of these elements and I wonder what is left for her second book. She writes well though, perhaps the best among the above named, and both I and my husband enjoyed this book - I always think it is a good sign when a book appeals to both men and women. These books set in the aftermath of war can have a tendency to incline towards "misery fiction" but Elizabeth Speller does allow at least some of her characters to have some glimmers of light and hope in their lives and I like the way she shows over the course of the book how Captain Bartram begins to look to the future again. This makes the book a more enjoyable read (to me at least) than say the Charles Todd books where the unfortunate policeman Rutledge has to endure having the voice of the dead Hamish in his head.
Having said that it does none of us any harm to remember what this generation had to go through; the horrors of WWI, the ghastliness of life without the welfare state in the 20's and 30's, and then, after a mere 20 years, the apocalypse of fascism and war yet again. People of my generation need to remember how lucky most of us have been ... how would we have fared had we been tested as these poor souls were?
In conclusion, I'd recommend this book as a good mystery , exploring serious issues, and sensitively written.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars 1914-2014 100 years on.
I found this book to be a reminder of the horrors of war in those times, and cannot believe that mankind is still inflicting such horror on its fellow beings. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Terence Shoesmith
3.0 out of 5 stars ... this book as a holiday read and although I enjoyed the first half...
I bought this book as a holiday read and although I enjoyed the first half of the book I found it to be too long and I only felt drawn to the characters John Emmett and Byers, the... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Margaret Knight
4.0 out of 5 stars Nearly excellent!
Nearly excellent! A slow start to the novel but nevertheless, once Bartram starts unravelling the story behind the demise of captain John Emmet the tale gets more and more gripping... Read more
Published 3 months ago by H. Lacroix
5.0 out of 5 stars The failure of survival
For those that survived The First World War, coming home and readjusting was another battle that many were facing. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Jo D'Arcy
3.0 out of 5 stars Compelling but strangely frustrating.
This book has much to recommend it - the clarity of the writing, the characterisation, the lovely descriptions - but... Ah yes, but. Read more
Published 5 months ago by MadCow
4.0 out of 5 stars Book club
Another book club read, I love war time novels and this one didn't disappoint, very enjoyable definitely recommend as a pool side read
Published 6 months ago by Anne-Marie Upton
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book.
This book was chosen by our book club - and every member of the group really enjoyed it. It was different, with a real in-sight into the effect World War One had on those who... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Susan B.
4.0 out of 5 stars More good than bad
This was a real page turner, and I thought that the descriptions of WW1 horrors were very well described. I chose it because the reading group of which I am a member chose it. Read more
Published 8 months ago by S. Raab
4.0 out of 5 stars Started off well....
..... but never quite reached an ending that satisfied me. In fact I thought it was lame.

But what this book did manage to do was really draw me in into the year 1920. Read more
Published 8 months ago by sdas
4.0 out of 5 stars A satisfying read with a solid ending
I was a bit dubious when I picked up this book. According to The Independent, this novel is `the new `Birdsong' - only better'. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Sarah Brown
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