The Book: The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller
The Challenge: A Mystery or Thriller
The Return of Captain John Emmett is one of those random finds that greatly surprises you. It follows one Laurence Bartram, who was a Captain during WWI and who returned home to find that his wife and child died while he was fighting in France. Now, five years later, he is almost haunting London, wandering around researching for a book he knows he will never publish, when he is contacted by Mary Emmett, the sister of one of Laurence's childhood friends, John. Mary reveals that John returned home shell-shocked and was soon committed to an asylum, where he then killed himself. She asks Laurence to find out why, as John did not leave a note. From there, Laurence joins forces with another old friend, Charles (more on him later), and proceeds to investigate John's apparent suicide. What seems like a run of the mill investigation turns into a full blown mystery, as Laurence is pulled into a web of intrigue, murders, secret affairs, and war poets, and is forced to confront his own personal demons left over from the War.
Laurence is not what one would normally picture as a detective. This is understandable, as he only takes up the investigation out of a sense of chivalry towards Mary (though it turns out he has his own motives there). He more sort of blunders along his investigation rather than hunting down clues and leads like other detectives. Indeed, he (spoiler alert) doesn't actually solve the mystery: the solution is revealed when the perpetrator learns he is on the track and essentially gets tired of waiting for him to figure it out. In fact, Laurence doesn't pick up on the confession until the words "And then I killed him" are used. He is an endearing character, though. The reader is brought along with his investigation and his efforts to move past his War experiences and find a place in a world "gone mad".
And now we come to Charles, my favorite character in the book. Charles is the type of person who one would expect to be at the center of a British mystery: he knows everyone (like Miss Marple, he seems to have an inexhaustible supply of relatives all over the country), loves a bit of gossip, is completely incapable of being disturbed by much of anything, is always in good spirits, and is ready for any emergency. He is an avid reader of mystery novels himself, and tends to be a few steps ahead of Laurence for much of the novel. When Laurence points this out, Charles' response is basically a shrug and a "Mary asked you, not me", and is apparently along for the fun of it.
The two gentlemen make a great team, with Laurence's melancholy being off set by Charles'.....Charles-ness, and Charles' more exuberant responses being paired with Laurence's more rational and down-to-earth approach. The mystery itself is gripping and also manages to be a heartfelt look at the lives of soldiers returning from the War. This is, apparently, the first in a series Speller has written with Laurence Bartram as the detective.