The Return of Captain John Emmett

by Elizabeth Speller

Damaged but not broken by his service in the Great War, and living a solitary widower's life in a London attic, accidental detective Laurence Bartram looks into the suspicious death of an old friend and discovers much more than he wishes to.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547737409
  • ISBN-10: 0547737408
  • Pages: 448
  • Publication Date: 06/26/2012
  • Carton Quantity: 24

About the book

“Intriguing . . . a captivating wartime whodunit.” –Boston Globe

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 war experiences, his own survival may depend on uncovering the truth.

“An elegant, moving read.” –Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

About the author
Elizabeth Speller

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.




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 c...

"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., Florida -- Library Journal

"Elegant, engrossing read."-- Publishers Weekly "Elegantly written anti-war saga."-- Kirkus