Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Pierce’s Picks: “Dead Man’s Land”

A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

Dead Man’s Land, by Robert Ryan (Simon & Schuster UK):
This novel was published in Great Britain at the beginning of the month; but as I live way out here in Seattle, and there’s no U.S. edition of Dead Man’s Land (in fact, author Robert Ryan doesn’t seem to have been published much in the States at all), I only recently received a copy of the book and found the chance to read it.

I am very glad I did.

As Ryan explains in a short essay for Crime Time, Dead Man’s Land was not originally his idea. His publisher was shopping around for “a work of fiction featuring a ‘detective in the trenches of World War I,’” and Ryan came up with a splendid solution: Why not send Dr. John H. Watson, of Sherlock Holmes fame, to the front lines in France, where he’d find himself involved in a homicide investigation? Of course, Watson would’ve been fairly old in 1914, when the action here takes place (in his early 60s, by most estimates). That, however, proved to be a surmountable problem. In Dead Man’s Land, we find Watson--who, after all, was a battlefield surgeon before becoming the chronicler of a crime-solver’s escapades--in Flanders Fields as a major with the Royal Army Medical Corps, and “an expert in the new techniques of blood transfusion.”

He becomes grudgingly accustomed to the quotidian deaths of thousands of soldiers, the persistent bomb barrages, the pressures that weigh heavily upon physicians and nurses under such circumstances, and the appalling atmosphere of the trenches (“black tar from lamp wicks, the constant cigarettes, not to mention the tang of rat piss and the sour smell of unwashed clothes”). Yet, when a sergeant suddenly perishes of an elusive ailment that turns his skin blue and his hands into claws, the horrific routines of war are upset. Blame is cast initially upon Watson’s blood transfusions; but when other, similar deaths are discovered, the old man’s sublimated sleuthing sensitivities are aroused, and his pursuit of a murderer with old grudges to exercise draws him into a deadly confrontation that must finally be settled in the worst possible place: the bleak no-man’s-land between the opposing armies.

Ryan’s portrayal of battlefield conditions is thorough and captivating, his cast of suspects sufficiently well drawn to have fooled me, and his capturing of Holmes’ associate faithful enough to have won the backing of Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate. The author has left himself room to write a sequel. I hope he will do just that.


Mike Ripley said...

Told you it was good!

Anonymous said...

Thanks JKP - I happened to read an essay Ryan wrote about this book the other day and tried to find it. No luck. Let us know if they make a NA version available!

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Thanks again for the recommendation, Mike. Having read Dead Man's Land, I now want to explore author Ryan's previous works. Do you have other favorites among them?


Mark Billingham said...

It's a great book, isn't it? And just to let you know, Rob has already finished that sequel!

J. Kingston Pierce said...

That's great news, Mark! I very much look forward to reading Ryan's sequel.