Monday, 1 October 2012

The Return of Captain John Emmett | Elizabeth Speller

This book was recommended to me. I'd completely missed it when it came out, even though it made the Richard and Judy list in 2011.

Richard, in the podcast for it, pithily describes it as a 'rattling good yarn'. It is. Speller's book is hugely enjoyable. Extremely evocative of the era -- the early 1920s, as Europe still struggles to recover from WW1 -- it manages a neat balance. Essentially this is a thriller, and quite a fanciful one at that. And yet it doesn't appear to be this at all, more  a lament, and a love story, for a generation lost.

There are echoes of Le Carre. Laurence Bartram is asked, by the man's attractive younger sister, to investigate the last months of the life of an old school friend, John Emmett, who has apparently killed himself. Gradually he pieces together Emmett's state of mind and in so doing Speller reveals some of the Great War's true horrors.

Speller is described as a poet and her prose is certainly of the highest calibre. As if every sentence has been pored over. And of course she is clearly highly knowledgeable about the First World War poets, those tragic young men who composed beautiful stanzas in the trenches. Those men certainly inform this novel.

I described it as fanciful: the plot grows and grows and takes twists that's more boy's own than you might expect. It's a hugely enjoyable journey. I scratched my head a fair bit over the character of Charlie -- who really did seem to be there to perform the function of a between the wars Google. If Laurie ever wanted to find out about someone in the military, he'd mention the name to Charlie and pop, up would come an address. Perhaps it worked that way. The old boys network. But it is certainly convenient for the plot.

That said, I found it extremely satisfying and I was intrigued by the portrait of the women. Contrasting portraits -- the radical former nurse and the stoic sister. A period when attitudes were changing, clearly.

The Return of Captain John Emmett on Amazon. But available elsewhere. There's a follow up too: The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton.

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