“Ever wondered what Dr John Watson got up to before the other guy turned up?”

NO MAJOR SPOILERS

“All quiet on the Watson Front”

1915, The Western Front. Dr John Watson has come to a Flanders field hospital to demonstrate a radical new method for blood transfusion.

The scale and savagery of the slaughter threatens to overwhelm his sensibilities but, when he is presented with a corpse that bears all the hallmarks of murder, and it becomes clear that the murderer has struck before and will strike again, he must spring into action, using all that he has learnt at the hands of his famous companion.

Since Anthony Horowitz’s House of Silk I’ve been on the lookout for good quality Holmes homages, but it’s surprising just how thin on the ground they actually are. This, however, is a real contender. Ryan has written a thrilling whodunnit/adventure that meets all the requirements of a good Holmesian tale… bar one – there’s no Sherlock Holmes! Well, that’s not entirely true but, after a friendship-breaking disagreement, Watson is left pretty much alone to solve this deadly mystery.

I suppose that Holmes fans may be put off by that twist, but I recommend that they persist, because this is an exceptionally well researched tale and very nicely written. Ryan’s diligence really comes through in the telling and there’s lots of fascinating detail about WW1 trench warfare and about the treatment of the casualties that the Great War produced in such prolific numbers.

The backdrop of Edwardian labour unrest and suffrage bring a three dimensionality to Dead Man’s Land which make it an absorbing read. It did what few books have managed recently; it kept me awake well into the wee hours.

The writing is clean and competent albeit somewhat dispassionate and the characterisation is diverse and well realised. I wouldn’t claim to be a Holmes fan – at least not a dedicated one – but I am sufficiently familiar with ACD’s works that I at least am satisfied with Ryan’s addition to the milieu. True, Holmes himself barely features, and when he does he is much diminished by age. That he has feet of clay may be a disappointment to his followers but Watson is dynamic and believable and I can’t imagine that his fans will have too much to complain about.

That Dead Man’s Land has moved on from the traditional Victorian setting separates the story neatly from the main body of work, and gives Ryan room to play with the characters and to take a few liberties here and there. Nevertheless he remains solidly faithful and it can be imagined that ACD would approve.

This is a compelling and enjoyable murder mystery and it is very highly recommended.

Look out for the sequel, The Dead Can Wait.

 

Reviewed by:

Campbell McAulay

Added 2nd July 2015

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Campbell McAulay

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