Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Review of Dead Man’s Land by Robert Ryan (2012, Simon Schuster)

Although now well beyond normal service age Dr John Watson has re-enlisted to serve a front-line medical doctor in the Great War. He’s role is to assess and treat wounded soldiers in a casualty clearing station and to teach the new method of blood transfusion to other doctors. The carnage is terrible, with an endless stream of bloody victims to attend. When one of his charges dies, his jaw clamped shut, eyes bulging and his skin tinged blue, Watson suspects foul-play. His suspicion is further aroused by a number carved in the victim’s chest and rumours of similar deaths among the same regiment. He might be without his friend, Sherlock Holmes, but Watson has learned from his time with the master detective and he’s determined to get to the truth even if that means risking his life in the trenches.

Dead Man’s Land is the first book in the Dr Watson series set during the First World War. After parting ways with Sherlock Holmes, Watson has re-enlisted as a medical officer and headed to the trenches of Flanders where part of his mission is to extol the virtues of the new method of blood transfusion. His first post is in a relatively quiet section in a casualty clearing station where he discovers the Leigh Pals, a regiment he met a couple of months earlier in Egypt, are serving. When one of the pals dies after a blood transfusion Dr Watson suspects foul play. His initial investigation suggests this is not the first such death. Someone is using the cover of battlefield carnage to commit murder and Watson sets out to identify and capture him. Ryan does a nice job of building a story around Dr Watson and bringing him to the fore of the story, and in constructing a serial murder tale in the frontline area of Flanders. There is a good sense of place and historicisation as to conditions and operations at the front and medical services, and the dimensions of class and hierarchies within services (military and medical) are nicely realised. Beyond Watson, the nursing staff and the Leigh Pals are well realised and engaging, especially suffragette voluntary aid detachment nurse Mrs Gregson. The core of the plot is a nice murder mystery that has a good twist to it, however it has a couple of subplots that were a bit of a distraction involving a German sniper and Winston Churchill that felt like interest padding, and it was a shame in many ways for Holmes to be pulled into the story. Overall, an engaging tale that does a reasonable job of continuing the canon without it feeling overly pastiche.

No comments: