Crime fiction reviewers and bloggers are a major influence on what I read. In reality I have enough books to get me through (at least) the next couple of months but reading other people’s reviews means that my reading pile just gets higher and higher. And not everything I read I would have picked up through my normal channels. Dead Man’s Land by Robert Ryan is one such book. It’s set in the trenches of the First World War and features as its protagonist Doctor John Watson, the creation, of course, of Arthur Conan Doyle. I tend not to read books featuring other people’s character but I was sufficiently intrigued by a review from the excellent blog Novel Heights to borrow the book from my library.
Dr John Watson joins the trenches of Flanders Field to use his medical expertise to help the wounded men. But he soon realised that this War is different to his previous experiences of conflict in Afghanistan. Not only are soldiers dying from the effects of gas, shelling and gunshot wounds but he also believes a killer is at work in the trenches. For what easier place would a killer find to hide than amongst the devastation of the French battlefields?
I have read the Sherlock Holmes stories over and over again since I first picked them up as a teenager. However, I do think that there is scope for portraying both Holmes and Watson in a way other than those written by Conan Doyle, as the TV series Sherlock recently proved. In fact, Ryan’s portrayal of Watson was essentially the man in Conan Doyle’s stories and I thought the writer did a good job in capturing the essence of the character. Watson come across as both compassionate and tenacious in the hunt for the murderer. There are plenty of likely suspects and the war has attracted people from around the world, not all of whom are in France for idealistic reasons.
The book is also written from the viewpoint of Mrs Gregson, a VAD nurse with suffragette sympathies who shrugs off the disapproval from the hospital Matron to accompany Watson to the field hospital. These scenes give a flavour of the tensions and petty rivalries rife in the hospitals.
Overall it was an interesting read and gave another view on the horror of the trenches. The pace dropped in a few places but the characterisation was excellent and it has made me curious to read the writer’s other books.
Robert Ryan will be talking about historical crime fiction at Victoria Library in London on the 18th February. Further details can be found here.