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The Return Of Captain John Emmett Paperback – 7 Apr 2011

4.0 out of 5 stars 94 customer reviews

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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: 12.8 x 2.9 x 19.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (94 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 272,667 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
"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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Excellent - I suspect that the next few years will bring a rash of WWI based books but this is certainly a good opener. The book centres on the apparent suicide of Captain Emmett in the months after his return from war. Laurence Bartram is asked by Emmett's sister to investigate why his schoolfriend killed himself - Bartram is himself deeply disturbed by the war & the loss of his family whilst he was away and this project gives him a focus as the apparent suicide is revealed to be much more complex. it should be said that the suicide is the hook to hang the novel on, it isn't really a why / who dunnit, its a historical novel which contains a mystery.
Bartram's investigations bring him into contact with many characters who all reveal different aspects of the horrors that followed WWI. It reminds us that this was a world that had no idea how to deal with the returnees even those who appeared unscarred let alone the physically & psychologically damaged. It isn't unremittingly grim though and offers, for Bartram at least, the possibility of a new life. It is reasonably even handed, the author doesn't neglect the effect of the war on women both those who stayed at home and those who served as nurses etc. I docked it one star because I thought that it could have benefited from tighter editing - its quite a long book and it occasionally felt stretched. If you like Pat Barker's books or Faulke's Birdsong then you'll probably like this.
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Format: Paperback
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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