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Dead Man's Land by Robert Ryan

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Manda Scott
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Dead Man's Land by Robert Ryan

Post by Manda Scott » Thu November 28th, 2013, 4:38 pm

Rob Ryan was one of our speakers at the Harrogate History Festival in October this year (it was a blast, did I mention? If you didn’t come this year, you should next) and I was so impressed by his talk that I brought one of his books back with me – and have just finished it.

Dead Man’s Land is based on the fact that at the very end of the Sherlock Holmes series, we discover that Dr Watson returned to his job in the RAMC – and it’s 1914, so guess where he ends up? There may be 1,000 books on the first world war about to hit the shelves, but this one got in early – it’s out in paperback already – and it’s utterly magnificent. I’m sure there will be others that are 5* and good coming out, but this is an excellent place to start: original, and yet comfortingly traditional, in the style of Conan Doyle, but brighter, sharper – and not a whiff of misogyny. In fact, strong women feature strongly. I had hopes that we’d see a woman/woman relationship, and we did, after a fashion, but I think it was intended to be the female version of the Watson/Holmes relationship – the one where the 21st century Watson has to keep saying, “I’m not gay” because at least one of them is and if it’s not him, then… Anyway, we didn’t go there. Where we did go is a satisfyingly tortuous piece of detection in the grim, ghastly, mud-filled, gas-filled, sniper-filled trenches: the place we think we know by now (and will certainly know inside out by this time next year) but there’s always some new horror to discover.

In this particular case, men are dying in ways that even war cannot entertain – because what better place to pursue a vendetta than in a battlefield where 50,000 men are dying every month. Watson is in the medical tents, trying out his new miracle technique (blood transfusions with citrated blood. I think he needs a brief lesson in agglutination, but that’s beside the point) and when one of his patients dies, he is duty bound to find out why. Missing his old friend and mentor, he has to engage his own little grey cells and does so in a satisfyingly roundabout way. We have vignettes from the German trenches, and particularly from a German sniper who does his best to wipe out some of the relevant characters and other input from the nurses and the sub-nurses of the VAD. But most of it is from Watson’s perspective and it’s cracking vintage stuff: well written, intelligent, illuminating… a perfect addition to the entire Post-Conan Doyle oeuvre of Sherlock Holmes. I loved it and I’ll be getting the sequel as soon as there’s room on my TBR pile.
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annis
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Post by annis » Fri November 29th, 2013, 5:45 pm

Thanks for the heads-up, Manda. I've enjoyed several of Robert Ryan's novels, and thought Death on the Ice a particularly fine piece of work.

Sherlock & Watson, though never out of style, have had a remarkable renaissance in recent times :) It's notable that forthcoming 100th anniversary of the start of WWI is already spawning a lot of fiction based around the First World War. Ben Elton, of course, was on to this some years go, with First Casualty, a mystery which explores the bizarre morality of war - how can one killing be considered murder, yet thousands not?
Last edited by annis on Fri November 29th, 2013, 5:58 pm, edited 4 times in total.

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