Published in 2010, this is Elizabeth Speller’s first novel. I came across her work when I read a review of her second book, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton (2012), which features the same main character, so I thought I should read the first one first. I’m not sure that was a good idea. On one hand, it certainly establishes the background and circumstances of the main character. On the other, it reads a bit like a first novel – promising, but flawed.
It is 1921. Captain Laurence Bartram has survived the cataclysm of the World War, but is now drifting and purposeless. His wife died in childbirth during the war, and his baby son soon after; now his life before 1914 is ‘a closed world he could never reach back and touch.’ He has been commissioned to write a book about London churches, but is making slow progress. Then he receives a letter from Mary Emmett, the sister of his school friend, John Emmett. He too survived service in the war, but has recently committed suicide. Mary wants Laurence to help her understand why. Though Laurence feels he is unlikely to be much help, he remembers liking Mary, and agrees to try. But what if the truth will be of no comfort to her?
This story has the form of a classic mystery, where an ordinary person undertakes some sort of quest to uncover a secret. Laurence makes a good ‘ordinary person’: he is a kind and decent man, troubled by his own memories of what he has lived through. One thing he finds out leads him to another, until the whole picture – or almost the whole picture – becomes clear. Along the way he gets help, mainly in the form of information. Quite a lot of this comes from another school friend, Charles, who has a wide range of friends and relations who together seem to know almost the entire surviving officer class from the war. I’m sure Speller is right in saying that at least in the early years of the war, getting a commission was a class thing; a question of going to the right school and having the right background. Many of them would be likely to have friends and relations in common. Nevertheless, my problem with Charles is his role in the structure of the plot; his body of knowledge is just too convenient. There are also some fairly wild coincidences: sentences like ‘Even as he absorbed the extraordinary coincidence unfolding in front of him’ don’t really make up for the hole in the plot that necessitates them. The reader will certainly work out what is happening quicker than Laurence does. And the resolution takes a form that I think is a bit amateur. Overall, there is too much telling and not enough showing. But this is a fault of a first time novelist, and there are other things to like about the book.
Speller has been praised for her scrupulous presentation of the early 1920s, and in general the context she provides is interesting, and sometimes thought-provoking. (There is one anachronism though – see if you can pick it.) However I found Laurence’s middle class perspective a bit limiting at times, as for example when he assumes the person he is looking for must have been an officer: it takes him several chapters to figure out that he could have been an ordinary soldier. He then at least does reflect on the class-bound basis of the army. But Charles especially reminds me of characters in the snobbish stories of the 1920s mystery writer Dornford Yates – that is, he has no character outside what is almost a parody of the English gentleman.
The book’s main strength, for me, is the issue of military discipline that is at the heart of the story. Speller has researched the area closely – she gives some references in an afterword – and it is well to be reminded what powers the British Army wielded over soldiers at that time, particularly as the centenary of the beginning of World War I approaches, with all its opportunities to romanticise the terrible sacrifice. Laurence is able to regain his emotional life by admitting to himself that during his service, he was terrified much of the time by the thought of dying. ‘We weren’t supposed to be frightened, not so that it showed,’ says one character. ‘Now when you look back, you can see that fear was the rational response to much of it’. And Speller suggests that what soldiers had to endure was essentially unendurable. This is hardly new, but highlighting the psychological as well as the physical damage caused by the war gives depth to her story.
Overall, at the better end of holiday reading. You can find out more about Elizabeth Speller here. She has just published a third book, though not featuring Laurence Bartram – there’s only so many adventures the ‘ordinary man’ can have before he makes a profession of it. The new one deals directly with the Great War. It seems like there might be a bit of an industry this year round the centenary of its outbreak. And certainly lots of controversy.