Dead Man’s Land – Robert Ryan – 8/10

“He half expected to hear a nagging voice in his ear, telling how he was looking but not observing.”

dead man's land

John Watson feels called to serve humanity as best he can – in the support effort to the trenches in Flanders, employing once more his medical knowledge in the field. In between the criminal understaffing, the treacherous mud and the deadly attacks by the other side, there seems to be a murderer about with intent – but who would bother going to all that trouble when the men are falling about them anyway?

Plot wise this was top-notch; it took a little while to get going and there were plenty of red herrings, but solid ones. For a few awful pages I thought Mrs Gregson was the killer! Couldn’t have that. Ryan steers us inexorably through a succession of treacherous half-clues and crazy motorcycle chases, gas attacks and sniper attacks from church towers towards the front line to have the drama play out in no man’s land.

Ryan writes Watson very well*; he’s getting on a bit, a little old-fashioned, concerned with chaperones and propriety and stuff, but also willing to throw all that to the wind to solve a murder. Mrs Gregson is a great character and I loved the development as the plot went on, mixing the politics of the suffragettes and a touch of 1910s English life into the desperation of the trenches. Oh yes and Sherlock makes an appearance – but he’s old now and has a bad back.

I found the setting overly graphic (silly me – it’s set in a hospital, in a war), but also surprising in that behind the front lines, often it was quiet. Watson and Mrs Gregson don’t have too much trouble travelling around to Bailleul and the Big House, which surprised me, so I suppose I learnt something about World War I!

Niggles? I ended the book not quite understanding the motive of the killer. A lot of time was spent on the German side of the trenches with little effect, I felt, and the German soldiers were given no humanity at all; it’s this sort of attitude towards Germany, still commonly encountered in Britain, that really bugs me. Also nearly everyone seemed to be dead by the end; a little overcooked.

In summary, a clever whodunnit set in tragedy and gore.

*my only acquaintance with Watson to date has been in the form of Martin Freeman to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes, and to a lesser extent, in the form of Jude Law to Robert Downey Jr’s Holmes.

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