Penelope Lively

Officers, if not gentlemen

The execution for desertion of a young officer during the first world war goes disastrously wrong.

Officers, if not gentlemen
Text settings

The Return of Captain John Emmett

Elizabeth Speller

Virago, pp. 442, £

The execution for desertion of a young officer during the first world war goes disastrously wrong. What exactly happened? Who was there, and why have some of those involved met untimely deaths? This is the crux of a novel that is a marriage of who-done-it and commentary on the class-ridden attitudes of the early 20th century. The action takes place in the immediate wake of the war, when battle-damaged men try to adjust to civilian life. One of these, Laurence Bartram, is persuaded to try and find out why a fellow officer, John Emmett, has apparently committed suicide; the persuader is Emmett’s sister Mary — romance hangs in the air.

The ensuing narrative twists and turns its way from one hypothesis to another, by way of a large cast and much speculative conversation between Laurence and another old comrade-in-arms, who is given to reading Agatha Christie, while serving as a sort of Watson to Laurence’s Holmes. Period touches abound, effectively enough — there is much poking and riddling of coal fires and consumption of unappetising meals. And the link between the young officers is the writing of samizdat poetry.

The underlying theme of the novel — the rigid social assumptions and prejudices of the day — is subtly interwoven with the fast-paced narrative, in which one revelation succeeds another, and just as you think you have spotted a looming denouement a new event subverts everything. A dubious asylum for the mentally ill, in which John Emmett has been incarcerated, is a sinister presence; the NCO who seems to have been the villain of the piece during the execution is perhaps also the rapist and murderer of a French girl. The reader becomes quietly confident — aha! But Agatha Christie is not invoked for nothing; there is more than a bow here in the direction of classic detective fiction.

That said, this is also a novel of the first world war, homing in upon that particularly emotive area, the executions for cowardice and desertion — mainly other ranks, very few officers. It seems to be de rigueur now for the novelist to cite sources and declare what is fact and what is fiction; we get three pages here of explanations — informative, but one can be left feeling that the card-index could be less apparent. Background research is indeed essential for this kind of novel, but is best left like the seven-eighths of the iceberg, assumed and invisible.

Elizabeth Speller’s memoir, The Sunlight on the Garden, also cast a shrewd eye on the vagaries of the English class system — in that case on the curious social appositions within her own family, and the ensuing confusions, defiance and pretensions. She made this family history into a vivid and lively narrative; it is no surprise that she has now turned to fiction, though the content and manner of The Return of Captain John Emmett do not allow her to air the talent for dry wit that distinguished the memoir. Next time, maybe.