Book Review: The Return of Captain John Emmett

I have to admit that I didn't do as well with the amount of reading I did last year as I'd like, mainly because it got swallowed up with fairly arduous books that I took a while to plough through. However, this year I'm aiming to read a book every ten days, preferably more, so I'm starting off with my first book review of this year - Elizabeth Speller's 'The Return of Captain John Emmett'.

Set in the early 1920s, the novel follows Laurence Bartram, a former captain in the British army during the First World War, who receives a letter from the sister of his old school friend, John Emmett. John has been admitted to a hospital for shell-shocked veterans but committed suicide just when he seemed to be turning a corner, and his sister has asked for Laurence's help to find out why. What follows is the unravelling of a mystery that stretches back years and causes Laurence to question everything he knows.

First of all, I have to say that Speller's research really shines through but never overshadows the narrative; both the trenches and 1920s London are both beautifully realised. The gorgeously drawn setting sucks you in and you become completely immersed in the environments. The transitions between the two worlds are also beautifully realised; where some war novels drop you back into the present with a jolt, this is much smoother and consequently enhances the feeling of getting inside the characters' memories. By contrast to the settings, the characters always remain tantalisingly distant, even as more is revealed about them. Normally a character I can't connect with really frustrates me, but for a novel like this where no-one ever seems to really know the full story, even right up until the end, I think it works incredibly well. And for once, the twist at the end is one you don't see coming.

Ultimately, if you like a good historical mystery then this is the book for you, although I will warn you it's not for the squeamish. The blurb on the front says 'The new Birdsong - only better', and whilst I haven't read Birdsong, I can safely say that this is a fantastically slow-burning book which will completely draw you in. Highly recommended for a long winter's night.

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