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The Return of Captain John Emmett Hardcover – July 5, 2011

4.1 out of 5 stars 81 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"Laurence Bartram is a young widower grappling not only with the loss of his young wife and infant son but also with a return to normalcy after his service in World War I when he receives a letter from Mary Emmett, the sister of a boyhood friend, asking him to look into her brother’s supposed suicide. He is as intrigued by Mary herself as he is by her letter, and his investigations uncover a series of crimes and help Laurence confront his own horrendous memories of the war. An absorbing mystery set in postwar London, Speller’s literary debut is brimming with historical details of the period and doesn’t shy away from war’s atrocities. There are many references to British writers and poets that the average American reader may not be familiar with, and the myriad names of officers and soldiers may be confusing. VERDICT World War I history buffs will enjoy this mystery, as will fans of period pieces set in London. Readers who like Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series will enjoy this as well." [Previewed in M.M. Adjarian’s genre spotlight, "Dispatches from the Edge," <LJ 4/15/11.—Ed.] —Julie Pierce, Fort Myers–Lee County P.L., FL --Library Journal

"Elegant, engrossing read."--Publishers Weekly

"Elegantly written anti-war saga."--Kirkus

From the Inside Flap

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 psychological depth with lively storytelling from the golden age of British crime fiction.

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 442 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (July 5, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547511698
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547511696
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.4 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (81 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,480,503 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Today we call it PTSD--post-traumatic stress disorder (and mystery lovers can get a good look at it in its present incarnation in Julia Spencer Fleming's latest Clare Fergusson/Russ VanAlstyne novel "One Was a Soldier"), but during the two World Wars of the 20th century it was called "shellshock." And too often the "treatment" was execution by firing squad.

The after-effects of one such incident are what put Capt. John Emmett in a veterans' hospital in 1920. Now, just as he seems to have been working his way back to some semblance of his old self, comes word that he has committed suicide. His sister Mary needs to know why and turns to the only friend of her brother's that she knows, Laurence Bartram, another British officer who's trying with not much success to create some sort of postwar life for himself --his wife and son died in childbirth while he was serving in France. Mary suspects that incompetence or something seriously amiss at the veterans' hospital may be at the root of it and asks Laurence to investigate. And, oh yes, might he also look into the who and why of all these people unknown to John's family who were given sizable bequests in his will? For help, Laurence calls on his friend Charles--an Agatha Christie aficionado and one of those guys who knows everybody who's anybody. Before long a much broader mystery comes to the fore: Not only is John Emmett dead, but so too are some other members of his company who survived the war, all of whom had been assigned to the same army execution squad. Is there a connection? Could this "suicide" have been a murder?
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Format: Paperback
Anyone who's read and enjoyed the novels of Charles Todd or Jacqueline Winspear (the post WW1 mystery series featuring, respectively, Ian Rutledge and Maisie Dobbs) is likely to be drawn to this debut mystery novel from Elizabeth Speller. Just don't succumb to "post WW1 fatigue" and avoid it on that basis: in many ways this novel (which feels like a stand-alone book rather than the beginning of a series, and is the better for it) offers the reader elements that the two series can't and don't.

Laurence Bartram, like so many other still-young men, is back from the trenches and their horrors, but only to find a very different kind of muted horror in postwar life -- the difficulty of adjusting to "normality". The only memory of his former life is the piano that his wife Louise once cherished; she and their infant son died on the same day he went "over the top" in a particularly memorable and horrifying attack. He struggles to find a life for himself, desultorily pondering a book about church architecture. Then the sister of a schoolfriend, John Emmett, seeks him out to request his help understanding why her brother has killed himself.

That's the starting point for the mystery, which rapidly turns into a compelling novel, transcending the mystery genre. True, in many ways this is a predictable story. There's a bluff sidekick, Charles (think Poirot's buddy, Hastings, with a bit more on the ball and in the little grey cells); a romantic interest, a cast of supporting characters who fulfill various predictable roles in the investigation and in Speller's portrait of postwar England. And yet... Speller handles these so well that even when one part of my brain was saying, yeah, I might have known this would happen, another part was saying "just keep reading!
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Unlike the previous reviewers, I cannot gush about how wonderful "The Return of Captain John Emmett" is, as I did not care for the book and had to force myself to finish reading. I have read, and enjoyed, the Ian Rutledge series (though I had a difficult time finishing "A Lonely Death", the most recent entry in the series) and the Maisie Dobbs books (again, with reservation about the latest book), so I requested Ms. Speller's novel from the Vine program. I was disappointed with the plot, although I agree that the prose is well written. I found it hard to care about the characters, and had no desire to find out who killed Emmett, but once the execution angle came into the story, it was obvious that that was the motivation behind the death of all the men.
This review is not very well written, but I find it very difficult to review a book I did not like with out spoilers indicating the reasons behind my dislike.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Perhaps the only obvious flaw in The Return of Captain John Emmett is the length of its title. The starting point is an old formula: a soldier returns changed by a war, he dies, and someone who loved him wants to know why. Nor is the plot innovative.

Instead, the book is exquisitely crafted from beginning to end. The writing is balanced, moving gracefully and economically between scene, character, and action. We are given reason to care about the protagonists as well as the mystery, and much of that reason is that the protagonists themselves grow to care deeply. Painful events do not shock; they provide pain, and the narrative does not rely on sensation or scandal (though causes for both appear). The intrusions of modern sensibilities into the period story are rare enough to be jarring when they occur, but slight enough not to destroy the story. The solution is satisfying; the resolution bittersweet.

It is not a detective story in that we don't have one character untangling the story far ahead of the reader. In places, the protagonist is a little ahead, but not enough to anticipate the solution. Because the story is built of character and motive as well as circumstance and action, the reader does not miss an analytic solution. Because the characters are drawn with a skillful blend of economy and depth, character can play its full role without dominating the story.

The Return of Captain John Emmett can be called a love story, but it rests on both feminine and masculine aspects of love: romantic desire and a quest for justice, not as an abstraction but as a personal obligation. As such it should appeal to both the chick-flick set and the last-debt-to-brother-in-arms following.

This is an impressive book.
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