Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Return of Captain John Emmett: Elizabeth Speller

I bought The Return of Captain John Emmett and began to read it believing it to be  literary fiction.  I was quite surprised (and pleased) to find it morph into a thriller.  Laurence Bartram's life, like thousands of others, has been dislocated by the first world war, and his mind too has been affected by personal trauma.  As the narrator remarks 'Extreme violence changes everything.'   When he's approached by a young woman who asks him to try to find the truth behind her brother's suicide, Laurence agrees partly because his life is empty and partly because the boys had been childhood friends.  Very soon he realises that there is more to John Emmett's death than has ever been acknowledged.  A series of killings, beginning with the death of a young officer on the front line, comes to light and Laurence is drawn into a complicated, dangerous investigation where nothing is quite what it seems.  As Laurence says to his friend Charles,  'I didn't know it wasn't going to be simple.  It isn't like your storybook sleuths.  Everybody isn't either good or bad, with clues and a tidy solution to be unravelled.  Everything here goes round in circles.'

I enjoyed the novel;  the period atmosphere is beautifully evoked and it's well paced and plotted.  It kept me guessing too - just when I thought I had an inkling about who the perpetrator was, the ground shifted under me.   There was only one reservation.  The prose is curiously dispassionate - though this may be intentional - echoing the emotional detachment of the narrator.  It was all very careful and elegant - something you can admire yet not be moved by.  I would have liked to be more involved.

This is Elizabeth Speller's first novel.  She wrote a memoir, which I read a couple of years ago, called The Sunlight on the Garden, about her difficult childhood.  That, too, had a certain detachment that prevented me from being emotionally involved with the characters in it. So perhaps this coolness is a characteristic of the author's prose.   Odd, because Elizabeth is a brilliant poet who has won several prizes for her poetry, which you can read online on her website.

Although this is literary crime fiction, there are several elements of the classic crime novel  in The Return of Captain John Emmett - the lonely, slightly awkward, male detective who has an upper-class sidekick who goes fact finding - in this story it's the old school chum Charles with his private income and high-powered sports car.    The open ending leads me to believe that Laurence and Charles will be problem solving again quite soon.  And I will be happily reading on, though not quite as enthusiastically as I read Kate Atkinson or Ann Zouroudi.

The novel is already a best seller, but the author has had a great deal of help to get this far.   In the acknowledgements she admits to being 'extremely grateful' to her agent and the two assistants who apparently helped to get 'the first draft of this book to a state where it could be considered a novel.'  She also thanks Lenni Goodings at Virago for 'her confidence and continued investment' which were 'hugely encouraging'.    A copy-editor and another publisher's editor are also thanked for 'pushing the book forward', not to mention the assistance of Richard Holmes.   Publishing isn't a level playing field these days.  I wonder how many other brilliant first novels are out there, being lamented by talented writers who don't have that kind of support network.   This may sound rather ungracious, but it's a fact of modern publishing.  Who you know is important and having an enthusiastic agent is essential if you want to be hyped into best-sellerdom.

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