One of the most heart-rending tributes at the National Memorial Arboretum is Shot At Dawn, which commemorates the men executed for cowardice or desertion during the First World War. Altogether more than 300 members of British and Commonwealth units were shot, with little or no chance to defend themselves. Many were suffering the effects of what was then known as shell shock (today we call it post traumatic stress syndrome), and some had been accepted as volunteers even though they were under-age. A memorial statue of a blindfold soldier, with his hands tied behind his back, stands in the easternmost part of the arboretum, and is the first area to be touched by the light of dawn – the time when the executions were carried out. Surrounding the statue are stakes, each bearing the name of one of these men.
Their tragedy, and the effects on those who knew them – their family, friends, Army colleagues and, especially, the firing squads who were ordered to carry out the killings – inspired Elizabeth Speller’s first novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett. Her tale is loosely based on the executions of Temporary Sub-Lieutenant Edwin Dyett, a Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and Lieutenant Poole, of the West Yorkshire Regiment. Set in 1920, in the immediate aftermath of the war, it is peopled with characters with damaged minds and damaged bodies. No-one has come through the conflict unscathed. Those who fought, and those who stayed at home, have all been changed.
Laurence Bartram has survived, but while he was fighting his wife and young son have died. Now, back home in England, he is trying to pick up the pieces and find a new purpose in life. He turns amateur detective after receiving a letter from the sister of an old school friend who has, apparently, committed suicide. John Emmet returned from the war a broken man, but was responding to treatment in a clinic – then he absconded and was found dead. The sister cannot understand why John should take his own life at the point when he was recovering, and she wants to know what happened to him. Laurence is also puzzled by the death, which seems oddly out of character for the confident boy he once knew, so he agrees to investigate.
He has little to go on: old letters, poems, a mystery photograph, and sketches of ‘nightmare images’, including one with a blindfolded man and six soldiers with guns. Then there are the bequests in John’s will: money left to three strangers who prove difficult to track down. Indeed, all the people who knew John in the last years of his life are elusive and reluctant to answer questions or talk about the past, including staff at the sinister clinic where John was treated.
As Laurence tries to gather testimonies to build a picture of his friend’s last days, witnesses disappear, and there are strange deaths, but gradually the fragmented story comes to light as memories and secrets are revealed. I am not sure whether Laurence would have uncovered the truth if he had been alone, but Charles Carfax, another old schoolfriend, takes it upon himself to help. Charles, who ‘seemed to have regarded his military service as a bit of a lark’, proves surprisingly resourceful. He knows everyone, uses his wide circle of acquaintances to gather information, is very capable and practical, and shrewder than he appears – he’s the one who gets them out of trouble. He’s the perfect foil for Laurence, who is more introspective and finds it difficult to cope with the ghosts of the recent past.
It is that past which haunts the book. There are moving accounts of the war as various characters recall the traumatic events, and Speller’s sense of time and place is superb, but above all it is a story about people and how they deal with life and death, with love, grief, friendship, revenge, forgiveness and renewal. Speller writes beautifully, with great sympathy, always maintaining the dramatic tension, which is important in any kind of detective mystery.
By the way, if you’re reading anything about the First or Second World War, and you’re near Lichfield, the National Memorial Aboretum, is well worth a visit. The focus is very much on the pity of war – it doesn’t glorify war at all. It is very beautiful, very peaceful, and very moving. You’ll find the website at http://www.thenma.org.uk