The First World War has recently ended, bringing back to their homes and families the damaged young men that have survived. Among them is John Emmett but, within a short time, he is found dead. A suicide who left no note. His sister Mary calls on Laurence Bertram, a schoolfriend of her brother and one of the few that he kept in touch with, to find out why John died despite the fact that he appeared to be in recovery from his wartime experiences.
Laurence Bertram is in need of a distraction. Awarded for valour for actions committed in the trenches at the moment – he later learns – that his young wife died in childbirth, the baby lost too, he’s come home to write a book on London’s medieval churches. But Mary’s plea for help gives him the chance to engage with not only her, a woman we sense he always would have loved, but also other people who come to give his life meaning, especially the enigmatic William and Eleanor Bolitho.
The story soon becomes an engrossing investigation of the truth behind a firing squad and its victim, of war poets forced to bear guns. Amongst the heroes are other soldiers, those who used the cover of war to mask their actions, even rape and murder. As the war ends, there are others intent on vengeance.
The Return of John Emmett succeeds on so many levels it is a most rewarding novel to read. John Emmett’s name is in the title but, just as in the novel that follows (The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton), this is the story of a survivor, Laurence Bertram. Incidents from his own war are sporadically told, as if we witness in real time Bertram trying to come to terms with his past. Laurence is such a likeable character it is a pleasure to follow his recovery and rediscovery of love in his life.
The strength of this novel lies not only in the clarity and the beauty of the writing but in the rich characterisation of his characters, however brief their appearance on the page. As we follow Laurence in his investigation of the path that took Emmett to his final moments at Faringdon’s Folly, we are made fully aware of how devastating the first world war was and how this continued as the villages across the country erected monuments to their dead.
Straight after finishing this novel I read its sequel, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton. It was just as good. If there had been a third, I would have kept on reading. Elizabeth Speller is a writer to watch and read for years to come.