Casting around for suitable book-snapping locations I remembered one of old Rocky's favoured summer's evening perches...
In fact he needed much assistance to assume what we fondly called his Olga Korbut beam pose in his latter years and would sit on the gate like a lemon until someone came to lift him off. So in the absence of our old chum I perched my current reading there instead.
I have had The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller on the shelf for over a year and when the sequel The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton arrived and then, realising I may be able to catch Elizabeth Speller talking at this year's du Maurier festival, it was high time to get cracking.
You may also see the proof copy of the forthcoming biography of Edward Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France by Matthew Hollis perched there too... keep your eyes peeled on here next week because I have a very exciting and interesting proposal to put to you about that one.
As alluded to on Monday with reference to Antony Quinn's novel Half of the Human Race, I can only imagine that it must be increasingly difficult to wring much more original fiction from the Great War. Yet still the books keep arriving and still I never tire of the subject, though perhaps the more I read the harder it becomes to impress me, and that may be why I left The Return of Captain John Emmett unread for so long. I wasn't sure this was going to be any different but my mistake and how delighted I am to have been proved wrong so if you are in search of a really good read, want some smooth-flowing writing and a book that looks as if it will be part of a series, you might want to add this one to the list.
The book opens in 1920 with the arrival in the UK, and the train journey from Dover to London, of the coffin bearing the body of the Unknown Warrior to its final resting place in Westminster Abbey... a tomb so much in evidence at last week's Royal Wedding. Looking on as the train passes is war veteran Laurence Bartram, and intentionally or otherwise, a clever choice of name from Elizabeth Speller, because I doubt I'm the only reader who will be subliminally reminded of war poet Laurence Binyon and his poem For the Fallen..
They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Powerful ready-to-think associations.
Laurence's wife and child have died whilst he was away fighting in the trenches and he is now living in a little flat in Gt Ormond Street, leading a lonely, rather melancholy and slightly directionless life as a writer of a book he never seems likely to complete, and with the occasional distraction of the companionship of old schoolfriend and fellow war veteran Charles Carfax
'to whom nothing need be explained.'
It is a letter from Mary, the sister of an old friend, John Emmett, that starts the trail of discovery as Mary recounts John's recent suicide despite surviving the war. Desperate for more details about the brother she has lost, Mary and Laurence meet and it is quickly apparent that events surrounding John's death whilst an in-patient in a nursing home may not be as they seem. What follows rightly lived up to the blurb as a 'gripping mystery and an elegy to the private tragedies of the Great War' as John and friend Charles, in a sort of loosely Holmes and Watson-like pairing, start some sleuthing, uncovering traumatic wartime events surrounding the execution of an officer all leading to feuds and vendettas, as well as the work of a group of wartime poets who have all published under pseudonyms for fear of accusations of treason.
Some of the facts that Elizabeth Speller weaves in were quite startling. For example it had never really occurred to me that the grandfathers of many of those young lads in the trenches would have been veterans of the Crimean and Boer wars. Nor had I realised that of the 340 or more British soliders shot for cowardice or desertion only three were officers, whilst the German army shot less than fifty of their own troops. Incorporating the tragically botched execution of one of those officers into the story and the subsequent distress it caused those involved exemplified yet another new perspective on the Great War for me.
But it was not only those new perspectives that hit the mark because the re-working of the classic themes that emerge in much Great War writing work anew here too and this despite their familiarity. Not least the disparity of justice dependent on social class and those very class inequalities that this war took a good hard swipe at. These in tandem with the deeply traumatizing events, not dwelt on mawkishly by Elizabeth Speller yet evident and ever-present, as were the long term personal sequelae of this war.
There was a revelatory moment too, about the corruption of innocence, the blight and tainted memory that marked all who had knowledge of those traumas and how much of the post-war silence of the veterans was about preserving and protecting the 'innocence' of their families and friends. I'm sure many of you will have had family members like ours... Bookhound's grandfather lived to be over a hundred and yet never spoke another word about the Battle of the Somme which he had fought in with the West Kents.
How much misunderstanding and anguish that silence must have caused in those post-war years can only be imagined, again I hadn't really thought much about it, but Elizabeth Speller illuminates it all in a conversation between Mary and Laurence, as they discuss the gaps and silences between men and women...
'But the price is that you'll always be alone...and a whole generation of women are excluded. Redundant. Irrelevant...perhaps Mrs Byers has lots of things she'd like to tell him. Of fear and loneliness and never knowing who was coming back or in what shape. Sitting. Waiting. Perhaps you should ask us whether we'd like to know. We're women not children.'
The true heartbreak, and the consequences of so much of what with hindsight we now know was a great deal of misunderstanding about the impact of war on the men who fought it, all plays out in the final pages of this very enjoyable read. All enough to send me ferreting to find out what else Elizabeth Speller may have written and I discover a memoir The Sunlight on the Garden, just my sort of read, more about that soon.
Now, since our old prize draw cat has made an appearance today scroll down for gifts.