Sherlock Holmes pastiches seem to arrive in bunches every generation—and the recent ones move the original caped crusader in ever-stranger directions. So it comes as a relief to read Rob Ryan’s take on the genre, which is at once a throw-back and so perfectly fitting it’s a wonder no one considered it before.

It’s 1914 and Dr. John Watson has returned to the army, re-commissioned as a major in the medical corps, and sent to the front in Belgium. He has had a falling out with Holmes, and despite his age, the veteran of the Afghan campaign is back in a very different sort of war. As I said, this makes perfect sense; despite his age, Watson’s concept of duty, and his need to feel useful on his own, without Holmes, makes it more than believable, and his service to the crown would get him his commission.

Ryan does a nice job of getting Watson’s tone right, and even the voice of Holmes he hears when he tries to think a problem through. Watson discovers there is a serial killer operating in the British trenches, and though he isn’t believed immediately, and the concept itself is anathema to the officers above him, his investigations are as dogged as you’d expect, and more dangerous given the context of the front. Ryan’s descriptions of the trenches are vivid and horrifying—appropriate at this time of year, in the centenary of the Great War and with Armistice Day approaching—as is his straightforward portrayal of the rigid class system in effect not just among the fighting men, but also in the hospital wards. This impedes not only the tactics of modern war, but Watson’s ability to treat its victims, as well as track down the killer. There’s a neat contrast drawn as well with his portrait of a German sniper, through whom Ryan manages to draw out some of the moral complexities of modern war. With poison gas floating across no-man’s land, there is an eerie echo of the present-day’s WMDs just as much as Watson’s Afghan service echoed in the modern TV update of Holmes.

But what makes Dead Man’s Land work as a Holmes pastiche is the way Ryan’s mystery turns out to be so true to Doyle’s style. Because for all the brilliance of the Holmes-Watson partnership, and the great villainy of Moriarty, Doyle was working very much in the puzzle side of the mystery world. It’s interesting that the British Crime Writers Association named Agatha Christie the greatest crime writer, and one of her stories the greatest as well, because she follows so closely in the Holmesian tradition, of characters not being who they are, and of issues of primogeniture, inheritance, and family status being so important.

In Ryan’s story, Holmes does respond to his friend’s call for help, and the mystery is solved by the two together, but not before a no-man’s land finale that puts War Horse to shame. For die-hard Holmes’ fans, this will be a satisfying climax, and for other readers, Ryan’s mix of the traditional and the new is like the war itself, grim, modern, and endlessly fascinating.

Michael Carlson

Dead Man’s Land by Robert Ryan

Simon & Shuster, £7.99, ISBN 9781849839570

Note: This review appeared first at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets

http://irresistibletargets.blogspot.com

Unusually, Dead Man’s Land didn’t start off as my idea at all, unlike

my other novels. I had a meeting with Maxine Hitchcock, editorial

director of Simon & Schuster about joining the company, at which she

said they were looking for a work of fiction featuring a ‘detective in

the trenches of WW1′. I said it was interesting idea – what better

place to commit murder than in a place were thousands are being

slaughtered each day? But I also knew it had its problems, not least

because the front line was very fluid (soldiers did not spend weeks in

the trenches – they were rotated back on a regular basis) and also

most Military Policemen were concerned with desertion and perceived

cowardice than crime. So I tried a slightly different approach, with

an outline and sample of a novel set just pre-war, a (genuine) Royal

scandal and a disgraced detective. We both felt, though, it didn’t

quite hit the mark (although, waste not want not, it now forms part of

the backstory of Dead Man’s Land). So we went back and looked at the

detective idea and I said: ‘Actually, it would be better if he wasn’t

a copper, but a doctor, just behind the lines, a man who might

recognize a murder when he sees one. And why not go one step further

and make it Dr Watson, who, we are told at the end of His Last Bow, is

to rejoin his ‘old service’. That would be the Royal Army Medical

Corps at that stage.’

Stunned silence from Ms Hitchcock. Silly idea? I asked. No,

not at all, she replied …

This was before the current explosion of interest in Sherlock

Holmes, thanks to the Guy Ritchie movies and the re-imagined BBC TV

series. It took me quite some time to research the book – not only did

I have to get WW1 right, I had to make sure I created a believable

Watson, as far away from bumbling Nigel Bruce as I could make him.

And of course, although I was adamant Holmes wouldn’t appear and I

wasn’t interested in even attempting for the book to stand alongside

the jealously guarded ‘canon’ of original stories and novels – it is

not a pastiche of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – I wanted my Watson to

inhabit Conan Doyle timeline. Which meant Dr Watson is not a young

man. In fact, he is too old to serve. But during my research I met a

woman called Sue Light, whom I found through her blog This Intrepid

Band (http://greatwarnurses.blogspot.com). It is a wonderful source of

information about the medical services in WW1, and she told me that

some doctors, if they had a particular skill to impart, were enlisted

at a reasonable advanced age in the RAMC at the rank of Captain or

Major. Perfect.

But there was one fly in this petroleum jelly ointment, in that

Dr. Watson has been trademarked by the Conan Doyle Estate, along with

Holmes, Moriarty and Professor Challenger (although they are all

technically out of copyright in this country). It seemed worth getting

the estate’s blessing to proceed and so, after a nervy pitch on the

phone and a couple of emails outlining plot and characters, permission

was granted to say that Dead Man’s Land was officially sanctioned by

the SACD estate.

The action of the book takes place to the south of Ypres in

early 1916, over the course of a ten days. Watson is at the front as

an expert in the new techniques of blood transfusion. When one of his

patients dies, he is certain it wasn’t due to any problem with the

blood or the new methodology. When a nurse admits to having seen the

dead man’s symptoms on a previous victim from the same battalion, he

becomes sure of it. This is murder. But, with the terrible waste of

life going on a few miles away, who is going to worry about a couple

of extra dead soldiers? Well, Dr. Watson is. And, although he is not a

great detective, he has been around one for long enough. And he knows

his methods, after all….

Dead Man’s Land with be published by Simon & Schuster in January 2013,

with a sequel to follow in 2014.

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