Review: Robert Ryan – Dead Man’s Land

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 Dead Man's Landmonths 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.

Review: Holly Roth – The Mask of Glass

Many of us have a daydream where we change our appearance and see if those that we are close to are able to recognise us. What will be the feature that we are unable to hide? Our eyes? Body shape? It is, of course, also a well used device in crime fiction with both criminals disguising their true identity and deceiving their nearest and dearest (Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced) and also victims using disguise to avoid detection (Lisbeth Salander in Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy). Occasionally, the detective has to undertake this too – Sherlock Holmes of course revelling in disguise and trickery.

In this book by US author Holly Roth, who was writing in the 1950s and 1960s, Jimmy Kennemore of the US Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps is both victim and investigator when a routine investigation into a missing deserter goes horribly wrong. His innocent enquiries at a seedy photographic studio result in him trussed up in a garage and only narrowly surviving an explosion. He crawls to the apartment of a family friend, Doc, who patches him up and nurses him back to health.

When Jimmy looks in the mirror his boyish good looks have disappeared and he now looks like a much older man with deep grooves down the side of his face and his red hair turned white. This is where the fun starts. I enjoyed reading of Jimmy embracing his new identity, testing it out on his girlfriend Rita and his astonishment at how people react to his more macho appearance. Equally enjoyable is Jimmy’s investigations into the men who nearly killed him. His revisits to the shop and attempts to dupe his way into the gang were gripping passages full of tension. There is a Jack Reacher/Da Vinci Code feel to the narrative, Jimmy goes from one scrape to the next but his natural bravado and military training help him to brazen out his situations.

The denouement was slighty disappointing, I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say it had something to do with Communists and H Bombs, a sign of the times I suppose when the book was written in 1957. It all seemed to be wrapped up on the last two pages so I had a slightly dazed feeling after finishing it. Given the preceding action, a little more explanation would have been welcome. It provided though a real slice of New York’s mean streets, contrasted nicely with Doc’s Second Avenue lifestyle.

This is #1237 in the vintage Penguin series.