The Return of Captain John Emmettby Elizabeth Speller
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London, 1920. In the aftermath of the Great War and a devastating family tragedy, Laurence Bartram has turned his back on the world. But with a well-timed letter, an old flame manages to draw him back in. Mary Emmett’s brother John—like Laurence, an officer during the war—has apparently killed himself while in the care of a remote veterans’ hospital, and Mary needs to know why.
Aided by his friend Charles—a dauntless gentleman with detective skills cadged from mystery novels—Laurence begins asking difficult questions. What connects a group of war poets, a bitter feud within Emmett’s regiment, and a hidden love affair? Was Emmett’s death really a suicide, or the missing piece in a puzzling series of murders? As veterans tied to Emmett continue to turn up dead, and Laurence is forced to face the darkest corners of his own war experiences, his own survival may depend on uncovering the truth.
At once a compelling mystery and an elegant literary debut, The Return of Captain John Emmett blends the psychological depth of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy with lively storytelling from the golden age of British crime fiction.
This book features a teaser chapter from The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, the sequel to Elizabeth Speller’s thrilling debut novel.
Surviving World War I is no guarantee of survival.
John Emmett's sister Mary can't understand why he committed suicide. Yes, he descended into madness following service in the Great War. Yes, he had to be banished to Holmwood, where difficult cases of shell shock were sequestered. But she thought he was making progress. Why kill himself now? When Mary calls for help on Laurence Bartram, an old school friend of John's, Laurence, wrestling with an apathy that has consumed him since his pregnant wife died and his war service ended, tentatively noses around, then becomes fixated with finding out the truth. And no wonder, since it looks as if someone has killed four other members of John's regiment linked by their participation in the duly sanctioned execution of a British officer. There are also glimmers of a wartime rape atrocity that preyed on John's mind and enough suspects to populate one of the mystery novels beloved by Laurence's friend Charles, who steps forward to help. Doomed love affairs come to light. Fathers are mired in grief over the loss of their sons. And war and its aftermath truly are hell, leading to yet more tragedy and a plot twist surely no one will see coming.
Historian Speller (Following Hadrian: A Second Century Journey Through the Roman Empire,2003, etc.) uses the Dyett and Poole executions in WWI as a springboard for this elegantly written antiwar saga.
Read an Excerpt
NOVEMBER 1920 , KENT
They gathered in the dark long before the train arrived
at the small station. It was mostly women: young
mothers holding tightly wrapped infants, elderly women in
shawls, black-coated middle-aged matrons alongside grown
children. There were men too, of course, some already holding
their hats self-consciously at their sides, and a cluster of
soldiers stood to one end of the platform near the bearded
stationmaster. Even so, the men were outnumbered by the
women as they always were these days.
Occasionally the station buffet sign creaked or a baby wailed
and the isolated murmur of one woman to another was almost
indistinguishable from the faint sigh of wind, but mostly there
was quiet as they waited. Still others stood a little further away.
In the houses on either side of the line, behind lighted windows,
silhouetted occupants held back curtains. Below them,
at rail-side garden fences or on the banks, stood a handful
more. On the far platform, almost out of reach of the lights,
it was just possible to pick out one individual, swathed in a
dark coat and hat, who stood at a distance from the rest. The
stationmaster looked across the rails with some apprehension.
In a long career he had never had a suicide, but tonight was different;
this train’s freight was despair and sorrow. However, the
watcher seemed calm, standing at a reasonable distance from
the platform’s edge, with the width of the down track separating
his stiffly upright figure from the expected train.
They felt it before they heard it. A faint vibration in the rails
seemed to transmit itself to the people waiting, and a shiver
trembled through them, followed by a more audible hum and
finally a crescendo of noise as the train, pulled by its great dark
engine, appeared around the bend. Tiny points of fire danced
red in its smoke and singed the grass. The last hats were
removed hurriedly and one young woman buried her face in
her companion’s chest. The soldiers stood to attention and, as
the train thundered by without stopping, its compartments
brilliantly illuminated, they saluted. A wave ran through the
crowd as several of the spectators craned forward, desperate to
catch a momentary glimpse of the red, blue and white flag,
draped over the coffin of English oak, before its passing left
them to the dark loneliness of their changed world.
As the crowd slowly dispersed, almost as silently as they had
assembled, the stationmaster looked along his platform once
more. Now quite alone on the far side of the track, one figure
stayed immobile. Hours after the stationmaster had gone to his
bed, reassured in the knowledge that it was six hours until the
milk train, the last watcher remained solitary and now invisible
in the darkness, waiting for dawn and the last battle to
In years to come, Laurence Bartram would look back and
think that the event that really changed everything was
not the war, nor the attack at Rosières, nor even the loss of his
wife, but the return of John Emmett into his life. Before then,
Laurence had been trying to develop a routine around the writing
of a book on London churches. Astonishingly, a mere six
or so years earlier when he came down from Oxford, he had
taught, briefly and happily, but on marrying he had been persuaded
that teaching was not a means of supporting Louise
and the large family she had planned. After only token resistance
he had joined her family’s long-established coffee
importing business. It all seemed so long ago, now. There was
no coffee, no business – or not for him – and Louise and his
only child were dead.
When his wife and son lay dying in Bristol, Laurence was
crouched in the colourless light of dawn, waiting to move
towards the German guns and praying fervently to a God he
no longer believed in. He had long been indifferent to which
side won; he wished only that one or the other would do so
decisively while he was still alive. It would be days before the
news of Louise and their baby’s death reached him. It was not
until he was home, with his grief-stricken mother-in-law endlessly
supplying unwanted details, that he realised that Louise
had died at precisely the moment he was giving the order to
advance. When he finally got leave, he had stood by the grave
with its thin, new grass while his father-in-law hovered near by,
embarrassed. When the older man had withdrawn, Laurence
crouched down. He could smell the damp earth but there was
nothing of her here. Later, he chose the granite and spelled out
both names and the dates to the stonemason. He wanted to
mourn, yet his emotions seemed unreachable. Indeed, after a
few days shut up with his parents-in-law, desolate and aged by
loss, he was soon searching for an excuse to return to London
and escape the intensity of their misery.
As he sat on the train, returning to close up his London
house, he had felt a brief but shocking wave of elation. Louise
was gone, so many were gone, but he had made it through –
he was still quite young and with a life ahead of him. The
mood passed as quickly as it always did, to be replaced by
emptiness. The house felt airless and stale. He started packing
everything himself but after opening a small chest to find a
soft whiteness of matinée jackets, bootees, embroidered baby
gowns and tiny bonnets, all carefully folded in tissue paper, he
had recoiled from the task and paid someone to make sure he
never saw any of it again.
Louise had left him money and so he was free to follow a
new career. It did not make him a man of substantial means,
but it was enough for him to tell Louise’s father that he wouldn’t
be returning to the business. Even if Louise had survived
and he were now the father of a lively son, he doubted he
would have continued buying and selling coffee beans. The war
had changed things; for him life before 1914 was a closed world
he could never reach back and touch. He could recall banal
fragments of people but not the whole. His mother’s long
fingers stabbing embroidery silks into her petit point. His
father snipping and smoothing his moustache as he grimaced
in the looking-glass. He could even remember the smell of
his father’s pomade, yet the rest of the face never quite came
into focus. His memories were just a series of tableaux, dis -
connected from the present. Louise, and the small hopes and
plans that went with her, were simply part of these everyday
He’d rented a small flat, a quarter the size of the town
house he and Louise had lived in for their eighteen months of
marriage before he was sent to France. It was in Great Ormond
Street and on the top floor, with windows facing in three
directions so that the small rooms were filled with light. There
he could lie in bed listening to the wind and the pigeons
cooing on the roof. He rarely went out socially these days but
when he did it was usually to see his friend Charles Carfax who
had been at the same school and had served in France. Charles
was someone to whom nothing need be explained.
Sometimes as he gazed out across the rooftops Laurence
tried to picture where he might be in a year’s time – five years,
ten – but he couldn’t imagine a life other than this. At Oxford
he had been teased about his enthusiasms: for long walks,
architecture, even dancing. That excitement was a curiosity now
and he had stopped worrying that he had drifted away from
friends. He no longer had any imagined future different from
Where he felt most alive was sitting in the chapel of
Thomas More inside Chelsea Old Church, wondering at the
man’s courage, or in All Hallows by the Tower where bodies,
including More’s, had been brought after beheading at the
Tower. Somehow horror was blunted by thirteen centuries.
Churches, he thought, weren’t buildings but stories; even their
names fascinated him. However, when he tried to re-create that
excitement for his own book, he was reduced to stone and
floor plans and architectural terms. For St Bartholomew the
Great, his notes read: billet moulding, cloister, twelfth-century
transept. Yet when he was sitting, resting his eyes, he had
sometimes sensed the monks brushing by him on their way to
Compline, or stumbling bewildered through the teeming
streets after Henry VIII had evicted them, while the building
survived as best it could: as stable, forge, factory or inn, before
it returned to what it was meant to be.
He had had a happy childhood, adored by parents who had
produced him quite late in life, but both had died unexpectedly
before he was sixteen. His much older married sister,
Millicent, had been like a second mother, but she had moved
to India before their parents died, remaining there with her
large family and a husband who was part of the colonial
administration. She had tried her hardest to persuade her
young brother to join them and, when Laurence turned out to
be surprisingly stubborn in refusal, sent him stories by
Rudyard Kipling, which revealed India as a magical and dangerous
place. He still kept one book near his bed, unable to
imagine his sensible sister amid the gold elephants, turbaned
elephant boys and rearing rattlesnakes on the cover. A distant
aunt agreed to be his guardian and this satisfied Millicent, if
not his need for love and comfort. In due course he went up
to Oxford where his tutor had been something of a father to
him from the day he arrived at Merton College as an undergraduate.
Shortly before his death a year or so ago, this kind,
unworldly man had introduced him to a publisher who had
shown surprising interest in Laurence’s diffidently proposed
Meanwhile his sister wrote regularly with an innocent
assumption of his love for Wilfred, Sally, Bumble, James and
Ted, his unknown, unimagined nephews and nieces. Given her
determination never to speak of anything unpleasant, her letters
only increased his feeling that Louise and the war were
something he’d dreamed up.
For a while young widows, or girls who had once been
engaged to officers in his regiment who hadn’t made it through,
made it fairly clear that his attentions would be welcome. He
was nice-looking rather than conventionally handsome, with
thick dark hair, pale skin, brown eyes and strong nose, a combination
that sometimes led people to assume a non-existent
Scottish ancestry. Unable to cope with the possibilities on offer,
he invariably withdrew with the excuse that he needed to focus
on his research. His married friends had been kind after
Louise’s death but he felt uncomfortable in their houses, watching
their family life unfold. He had tried it once. He had
journeyed down to Hampshire for a perfectly undemanding
weekend of tennis and cocktails, country walks and chatter,
then found himself in the grip of overwhelming anxiety. As
they trudged through waist-high bracken and followed earth
tracks through thickets of dense flowering gorse, he found himself
jumping at every rustle or crack of a branch. He made his
excuses straight after Sunday lunch.
Sometimes now he could go a week or more without revisiting
the smells and tremors of the war, and a whole month
without dreaming of Louise: that unknown Louise, ever pliant,
ever accommodating. It was an irony that he thought about the
dead Louise a great deal more intensely than he ever had the
living woman, and with real physical longing.
Just once he had weakened. He was walking alone late when
a woman stepped from a doorway.
‘On your own?’ she said.
He thought she had a slight west country accent.
‘I say, you’re a quiet one. You on your own?’
Inadequately dressed even for a mild winter’s evening, she
‘Do you want to get warm?’
His first thought had been that he didn’t feel cold. His
second, that she looked nothing like Louise.
Her back curved away from him as she took off her clothes,
folding them carefully on a chair. Then she turned to him.
Standing there, in just her stockings, her body thin and white
and her bush of hair shocking and black, he was simultaneously
aroused and appalled. She watched him incuriously as he
took off his shirt and trousers. Then she lay back and opened
her legs. Yet when he tried to enter her she was quite dry and
he had to spit on his hand to wet her before he pushed hard
against her resistance. He couldn’t bear to look at her. As he
took her he wished he had removed his socks. When he had
finished she got up, went over to a bowl on a stool in the
corner, half hidden behind a papier-mâché screen, and wiped
herself with a bit of cloth. He paid, noticing she wore a wedding
ring, and went briskly downstairs into the dark where he
drew mouthfuls of night air, with its smell of cinders and
drains, deep into his lungs. He was lost. Too much had gone.
Meet the Author
The Return of Captain John Emmett is her first novel.
ELIZABETH SPELLER studied Classics at Cambridge. She has written for various publications, and has taught at the universities of Cambridge, Birmingham, and Bristol. She divides her life between Gloucestershire and Greece.
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