Arthur Conan Doyle, Book Review, Dead Man's Land, Dr Watson, First World War, Literary pastiche, Robert Ryan, Sherlock Holmes
Watson goes it alone in the trenches; Sherlock studies bees’ Holmes!
I enjoyed this enormously – though I did have a couple of rather – ‘hmm, I’m not quite sure of this’ considerations
The most pressing is this: Given the fact that the First War, starting 100 years ago this year STILL seems to have left its shock waves and fault lines deeply embedded in European history – so that still a fairly large percentage of UK citizens may have memories at least of a deceased grandparent, who either had stories to tell of their childhood and how daddy or uncle this or that or the great love never came back, or were even wounded themselves.
It still feels somehow too near to be married with a detecting murder mystery, however well done.
Ryan is very good at being very direct with the horror and the carnage – from both sides of the trenches, the awfulness of that war, the horrific injuries on both sides, are laid out. And I also like his good writing, strong characters, examination of all sorts of issues – attitudes to women’s suffrage, outrageous, stuffy sexism, the class bound society, the organisation of labour, radicalism, cutting edge (literally), medicine. This is a good, pacy, absorbing ‘what happens NEXT……sort of read. Except that I’m still left with a bit of unease over the reality of that awful carnage hooked up with a murder mystery. Particularly one involving Dr John Watson, the erstwhile recounter of all the Sherlock Holmes casebook stories.
Pause for the sound of Sherlockians sucking in their lips with a hiss of disfavour. Possibly.
A better and more closely reading Sherlockian than myself will no doubt be able to verify that in one of the final (if not THE final story) when the great man retires to the Sussex Downs to pursue a bee-related hobby, the getting-on-a-bit Watson rejoins the Royal Army Medical Corps and pops over to France to do his doctoring bit and save the lives of wounded men.
In Ryan’s book, Watson becomes detective, and there are many references, and even a story line, around a dreadful falling out between Holmes and Watson who have now not spoken or communicated for some time (the subject of the fall-out being Watson’s enlisting in the first place)
Now, as far as my memory tells me, there never WAS such a hideous falling-out, and the sullying of that friendship by Ryan, unsettled me, as a travesty. Use our beloved fictional characters if you must, but keep them true to their original creator’s vision.
So……I have knocked off a star because of the two areas of unsettled, very different, snags at my sense of ‘not quite ethical literary behaviour’ .
The writing itself, and the characterisations engage, and I thought the structure of the book, using a filmic cutting device, was also effective. Ryan has a couple of story lines going on, one from the German side of the lines, one from the British, with also another cut into some events ‘back home’. Particularly in the battle field threads, he will take the reader to a cliff-hanging moment at a chapter end, but the next chapter will start with events on the other side of the lines, so you, as reader are left with two ‘what will happen nexts’ to keep you turning the pages. There are also several red herrings and teasers tossed into the salad, some of which are delicious and work very well, some of which are not quite as good, as the insertion of real characters whose real outcomes are well known, mean that some of the ‘what will happen next’ fever is reduced because the reader will know the history.
As the two stories from the lines began to coalesce, some coincidences began to seem a little too neat and inevitable, the structure a little too hastily wrapped, and I began to find this more of a story to be sat outside of, rather than strongly and intensely engaging me.
One final plus for this reader was a quartet of strong, well drawn female characters, very much representing the movement away from sweetly passive invisible Victorian womanhood.
Despite my criticisms this a book I would strongly recommend, especially to anyone who has a less queasy sense of what is, and what is not, acceptable in fiction!
Hmm – I don’t remember a big fight either, but I must admit to not knowing the later stories nearly as well as the earlier ones. Partly because they got a bit weird towards the end, and partly because I’ve started a re-read more often than I’ve finished it! But they were definitely still pals and in England in 1914 since they solved a case together then…
Lady Fancifull said:
I thought (vaguely) as much. I’m sure i would have remembered (and been heartbroken) by a falling out. You were the sucking in lips better and more closely reading Sherlockian I meant! I do think you might enjoy this (not an ARC, am afraid, but a genuine bought book – recommended to me as a quid pro quo from a Viner whom I recommended the marvellous House Of Silk to, a year ago (which of course, was one of YOUR happy reccs to me!) So that person I steered to HOS said ‘oy, try THIS!’ and it was (sucked in breaths at some moments aside) a goodish recc. There are lots of references to the bee-keeping one as well
It does sound intriguing, though I suspect I’d have Watson issues, since I usually do…though not always. But I am absolutely determined to get my TBR back down to a level where it doesn’t weigh on my mind, so I am being completely rigid about not adding things. (Did that sound convincing? I’ve been practicing telling myself it in the hopes it might work eventually…)
Hope you’re far away from the Thames, by the way, and keeping your tootsies dry…
Lady Fancifull said:
How very strong-minded of you. I give it as long as an unopened box of chocolates…
Fortunately I live in one of the hillier parts, well away from Father Thames, so my tootsies, and my chocolate boxes, are dry. It’s the snow and ice I have to watch out for, as stepping out of door when they are around, without footwear additions designed for such things, inevitably leads to derriere plunging to earth within a step or so in any direction