I picked The Return of Captain John Emmett for my ‘light reading’ over the last couple of weeks because it seemed such a perfect fit: here I am reading and teaching both literature of the First World War and mystery fiction, and it’s a mystery set just after–and preoccupied with events during–WWI. In retrospect, maybe that was exactly the wrong reason to read it now: it couldn’t compete with Testament of Youth, or with my relatively fresh memory of All Quiet on the Western Front, as a book about the experience of the war, and it didn’t seem that effective to me as a mystery, either. I had trouble staying interested in it, and though by the end I was moderately caught up in the story it was untangling, overall I thought it was just OK. Perhaps if I’d read it last summer, or waited until next summer, it would have had more of a chance with me.
What didn’t I like about it? Oh, not much in particular. It’s literate and well-researched, and it didn’t have the ‘checking off boxes’ effect of clunkier period fiction, when you feel the details are being added on purpose rather than because they emerge naturally from the context. (That’s kind of how Season 1 of Downton Abbey struck me–Irish radical? check! suffrage? check! declining aristocrats? check! Maggie Smith? check!) The central case is interesting and it’s a good idea to make an investigation into one particular death a way of exposing the larger catastrophe of the war (something Jacqueline Winspear also does pretty well in Maisie Dobbs, as I recall). Culpability is a complicated thing in this scenario, and the novel’s somber tone aptly reflects the moral bleakness of its reflections on the wholesale slaughter that makes singling out individual killers seem at least redundant, if not necessarily pointless.
The process of the detective story was not particularly interesting, though: Laurence Bartram is not a terribly charismatic figure, and he doesn’t do any impressive detecting, more or less plodding from one person to another asking questions and receiving, in return, unbelievably long statements that masquerade as parts of actual conversations–it gets very speech-y, which is about the most literal form of too much ‘telling’ imaginable. It would have been more fun, and more suspenseful, if Bartram had displayed more ingenuity and done more ratiocination. There are a number of self-conscious references to mystery conventions (and several references to Agatha Christie), but Speller is clearly aiming for a more “literary” mystery, and her effort went into setting, backstory, and, to some extent, character development–but here again, we find things out about people more from long revelatory speeches than anything else.
As an aside, the front cover of my edition features a review proclaiming it’s “The new Birdsong — only better.” Is it just me, or is that kind of insulting to both books? What does The Return of Captain John Emmett really have in common with Birdsong besides the WWI context? Why deprive it of its own claims to originality? And that “only better” is surely a gratuitous dig at Birdsong? I don’t understand what marketing logic lies behind choosing this as the crucial sales pitch.