The Return of Captain John Emmett is the first of Elizabeth Speller’s Laurence Bertram mysteries set just after World War I. I previously reviewed the second in the series, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton.
Laurence Bertram has felt himself at a loss since the war ended. He is haunted by his memories of the war and also by guilt at his lack of grief over the deaths of his wife Louise and baby son, whom he never saw. Ostensibly writing a book about church architecture, he is finding it difficult to work. So, it is with a bit of relief that he responds to a letter from Mary Emmett, the sister of an old school friend John Emmett, in which she asks him to come visit her.
Laurence has fond memories of some school leave visits with the Emmetts after his parents died but feels Mary has misunderstood the depth of his friendship with John, whom he has not seen in years. Of course, he has heard of John’s death, an apparent suicide. Mary explains that John had been staying in a rest home because of mental disturbance following the war. Since he seemed to be improving, she and her mother cannot understand why he committed suicide. She asks John to find out what he can about John’s motives.
Laurence feels uncomfortable but agrees to look into it because he has always been attracted to Mary. With the help of his friend Charles Carfax, who gets his detective skills from reading Agatha Christie books, Laurence investigates the rest home and anything he can find out about John’s state of mind before his death. Included in John’s curious scraps of paper and photos is a list of the beneficiaries of his will, some of whom cannot be identified or located, and some photos from the war.
Laurence comes to believe that John’s death has something to do with his war experience, possibly with an execution over which he was forced to preside. And it seems John may not have committed suicide after all.
Speller takes her time with these mysteries. The settings are beautifully described and the period effectively evoked. A true sense of depth of character emerges. Even though I was about 100 pages ahead of Laurence, not in identifying the perpetrator but in realizing the motive, I enjoyed every bit of this novel.
In the last few months, I have read several historical mysteries where the author did little with the time or place, simply using the historical events to frame the plot. Thankfully, Speller has taken more care with this interesting period of history.