The Return of Captain John Emmett

Elizabeth Speller

1920. The Great War has been over for two years, and it has left a very different world from the Edwardian certainties of 1914. Following the death of his wife and baby and his experiences on the Western Front, Laurence Bartram has become something of a recluse. Yet death and the aftermath of the conflict continue to cast a pall over peacetime England, and when a young woman he once knew persuades him to look into events that apparently led her brother, John Emmett, to kill himself, Laurence is forced to revisit the darkest parts of the war.
As Laurence unravels the connections between Captain Emmett's suicide, a group of war poets, a bitter regimental feud and a hidden love affair, more disquieting deaths are exposed. Even at the moment Laurence begins to live again, it dawns on him that nothing is as it seems, and that even those closest to him have their secrets ...


I was not surprised to learn that this debut novel was written by an award-nominated poet. Elizabeth Speller’s writing is captivating; her opening scene made me catch my breath.

It is night, and a crowd has gathered on a railway station platform. The women far outnumber the men. The train they are waiting for approaches, but does not stop. All the carriages are brilliantly illuminated, but there is only one passenger on board: it is he the crowd have come to acknowledge.

They are fully aware that he is dead, of course. Because this is 1920, and this is the train that carries the body of the Unknown Soldier from France to London, and a state burial in Westminster Abbey. The reason a majority of women mark his passing is because so many men have been slaughtered at the front.

What an opener. We are then immediately introduced to the main character, Laurence Bartram, who is struggling to rebuild his life after somehow surviving the trenches of The Great War and learning of the sudden death, back in England, of his wife and baby. Bartram feels almost amputated from his pre-war past and is at a loss as to how to live any kind of meaningful life. Then a young woman he once knew re-enters his reclusive existence: she has a task for him to perform.

What Bartram cannot know is that he is about to delve into a past even more disturbing and disquieting than his own.


Like Richard I really appreciated the quality of the writing in this book – direct, haunting, and illuminating.

My heart bled for Laurence Bartlam as he uncomplainingly tries to make sense of the bloody chaos he endured in France, and the heartbreak of losing his devoted wife and their baby.

Then a letter arrives for him from Cambridge. It is from Mary Emmett, the sister of an old school friend, John. Both men served as infantry officers in the war. Mary explains that her brother has taken his own life, after returning from the battlefields of Picardy. From her letter it is clear that John had been suffering from what was then known as shell-shock; what today we’d call post-battle stress syndrome.

Mary wants Laurence to look into the events that may have led to her brother’s apparent suicide. She wants proper answers and informed explanations.

Laurence cannot possibly know that, by gallantly agreeing, he will soon be confronting some of the bleakest, darkest areas of the recent conflict, including a vicious regimental feud, a very secret affair, and death.

The Return of Captain John Emmet is, quite simply, gripping.

Reviews & Comments

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  • I'm borrowing my daughter's computer to say what a cracking read this book is: compassionate, rich and keeps you guessing until nearly the very end. It's also very moving. It's not just a thriller, it's about the affects of war and of loss and of suffering; read it with at least three hankies and a big bar of chocolate. Her next novel has just come out and I think it's a sequel - can't wait!

    Bobbie Severn

  • Me and "the husband" are great readers but don't often agree on books. He has the usual guy thing about "lady-books" full of feelings - ick! -- and I'm left cold by stories of manly courage, suffering and hardship. But The Return Of Captain John Emmett got us both. Though in opposite ways. He was drawn through the world of feeling and loss by the story, and I was gripped by the story BECAUSE of it's emotional intensity. Perhaps we aren't usual R&J Book Club readers as we avidly read the reviews and spend FAR too long in our local bookshop, but all the same I was really pleased to see our own choice for 'read of the year" come up here, too. I'd give it 5 stars but the stars don't seem to work on this Site.

    Lucy Vallance

  • I do so recommend this book for a really good read. It has pretty much everything you could want - mystery, romance, page-turning tension and a 'leading man' you can truly root for. It's not just a ripping yarn, though, because the details, of the war and of the towns and way of life in the 1920s, is fantastic and makes for great depth, which I think is very necessary if you're really going to get involved in a book. Excellent!

    Janet J

  • Loved this book. A real page turner. The main characters were likeable especially Laurence who was an all round nice guy. It showed very vividly the horrors of war and the execution of the young Hart was horrific. I had no idea who the muderer was as he really didn't feature until the last chapters of the book. Thoroughly recommend it.

    Ann Allan

  • I loved this book, I just couldn't put it down, almost reading it at one sitting. Such a clever intricate plot and unexpected ending. But in my haste to find out who did it I only just appreciated the wonderful intricate period details that are woven into the story. So I shall read it again, more slowly this time but with just as much relish

    catherine hopkins

  • This was an absolutely great read, a real page turner. I could not put it down when I was getting to the end and had to finish it. It was a really good story and very believeable and it left you really wanting more I will be getting and looking out for more by this author and will definitely recommend it to my friends.

    Tina Teresa McCarthty

  • This book is a great read. Very well told in an easy to read manner. It's a tragic story of the effects of war on the soldiers & their families. Keeps you guessing right to the end. Would highly recommend it.


  • If you want to read this book, don't read Ann Allan's comment below. Could reviewers please remember that giving away at what point 'the murderer' appears in a thriller isn't going to help anyone's enjoyment of the book!

    Liz Woolf

  • first book i have read for a few months and so glad i picked this one, got me hooked from chapter one, one of those books you just cant put down, excellent story, excellent writing, a must read. Will be looking out for the next book from this author and hope it is as good.


  • How can people say this is an excellent book. The author and the editor have let this book be published with 'could of' 'would of' and 'should of' throughout it. I found it unreadable because of this and im shocked that common grammatical mistake has been allowed to seep intot he printed word now.

    Lynne Tuplin

  • Lynne-I just wanted to say (defending my editors as much as myself!) that I'm glad you noticed the 'what of's'- but that they were in fact in dialogue to make a s distinction between the education and class of a privileged army officer and a former soldier from a very impoverished background and to give some hint of the soldier's local accent. it is a difficult thing to give a sense of this in speech without being clichéd or patronising and my copy-editor and I did spend a long time deliiberating about this subtle (we hoped!) speech error, but I am sorry it failed for you.

    Lizzie Speller

  • I found the story line to be slow at first, however the characterisations were really interesting. Overall I enjoyed the book but I wouldn't say that it was a great book. The horrors of war become real as the plot develops. It has a good suspenseful ending

    Karen L S

  • This book was a great read, I would really recommend it and I found it impossible to put down! One of my favourite Richard and Judy book recommendations.


  • I absolutely loved this book. It hurt to read it. A "must read".

    venetia hos-edwards

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