During the First World War, 346 British soldiers were shot, mostly for cowardice or desertion, but only three were officers. Elizabeth Speller's absorbing first novel deals with the way that a single tragic execution poisons and distorts the lives of survivors in the aftermath of war.
The Return of Captain John Emmett el opens with the powerful image of the train bearing the body of the Unknown Warrior passing through a village on its way from Dover to London. Someone, watching, comments that it can never be known if the unidentified dead man was a hero or a coward or simply one of the multitude of the fallen. One man who will never have a hero's burial is Lieutenant Hart, messily despatched by a firing squad a few years earlier in France.
That squad had been commanded by Captain John Emmett. He does not long survive the end of the war. In 1921, his sister Mary sends news of his death in a letter to his old friend, Laurence Bartram. Bartram lives alone in London. Shaken by his experiences at the Front and devastated by the death of his wife in childbirth, attempting to quiet his mind by writing a history of London churches, he seems an unlikely hero.
But he embarks on a strange and terrible quest to find out how and why Emmett has died, a supposed suicide, shot dead in a wood after leaving the asylum in which he has been confined.
Bartram had been at school with Emmett's and travels to his home. Mary has asked him to go through her brother's effects to see if he can find any clues to explain his death.
In what becomes a complex crime novel, it would be unfair to disclose the windings of a very complicated plot. There are four more deaths of people who were connected to the wartime firing squad, all murdered and more or less mutilated.
On the level of an intelligent thriller, the book works efficiently enough, though approaching sometimes an almost Victorian level of coincidence and happenstance. What is remarkable is Speller's skill in summoning up a past time, and the intensity of her writing in the evocation of place and emotion: saddened and muted post-war London; a sinister private mental asylum and its odious proprietor; a fittingly grim industrial Birmingham, and a very moving description of a priory where grievously wounded soldiers are tenderly nursed by nuns. In the testimonies of witnesses, we are shown the execution of Hart in all its shabby, botched horror.
One irritating anachronism: a character speaks of being sent a complete set of Beethoven's work on record. In the early 1920s such a collection did not yet exist; if it had it would have amounted to hundreds of heavy shellac discs. That quibble apart, this is an involving and sensitively written examination of guilt and moral culpability: a fine achievement for a first novel. Readers should look forward to Elizabeth Speller's future work.
William Palmer's 'The Pardon of Saint Anne' has been reissued by Faber Finds