Title – Dead Man’s Land
Author – Robert Ryan
Published – 2013
Genre – Crime fiction
My introduction to Robert Ryan came at an event held by the publisher Simon and Schuster. Ryan has been writing for some years, his previous titles being mostly historical fiction including a series set in World War II. This, however, is the first title for Simon and Schuster.
The premise revolves around the discovery of a murder in the trenches on the Belgian front during the First World War. At the time the army’s recruitment had encouraged men living locally to each other or sharing an occupation to volunteer together – creating what were known as the “Pals Battalions”. This meant that the men serving together had a shared history – the potential source of the motive for murder.
An added wrinkle to this story is that the detective is none other than Dr Watson (he of Sherlock Holmes fame) who has returned to service. This was an aspect of the book that I was a little unsure of – I’m not a big Conan Doyle fan nor a fan of “crossover” in fiction, but do enjoy fiction set during the Great War.
The book is quite slow to get started – the murder only happening about a third of the way through – I’m more used to books that open with a corpse!
There are a number of interesting characters in the book – especially the two VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurses who are assigned to Watson. Part of the background and the reason for Watson’s involvement in the trenches is the pioneering work that was taking place in blood transfusion. The medical advances driven by the necessity of war is an interesting aspect to the story. The book certainly captures the horror of the situation in which the soldiers and nurses find themselves and the misery of life at the front.
Once one potential murder victim has been uncovered Watson and one of the nurses try to establish if this is the first victim, and set about trying to prevent futher deaths.
There was more to the Watson/Holmes relationship in the book than I had anticipated. Not having read anything beyond A Study in Scarlet I had no idea what the relationship between the two characters was and what the circumstances were of any estrangement between them. I have to confess that I actually ended up skimming passages that dealt with their relationship – it seemed to have little relevance to the story. It was also disappointing SPOILER ALERT that Holmes became involved in the investigation himself. Poor Watson – sidelined again!
Another odd thread in the book is that of a German sniper who attempts to take out a high-ranking British target, and his subsequent experiences. I’m still not sure of the value of this to the story.
Quite an enjoyable murder mystery, but I found the whole Watson/Holmes part of the story distracting.
Score – 3/5