Sherlock Holmes pastiches seem to arrive in bunches every generation—and the recent ones move the original caped crusader in ever-stranger directions. So it comes as a relief to read Rob Ryan's take on the genre, which is at once a throw-back and so perfectly fitting it's a wonder no one considered it before.
It's 1914 and Dr. John Watson has returned to the army, re-commissioned as a major in the medical corps, and sent to the front in Belgium. He has had a falling out with Holmes, and despite his age, the veteran of the Afghan campaign is back in a very different sort of war. As I said, this makes perfect sense; despite his age, Watson's concept of duty, and his need to feel useful on his own, without Holmes, makes it more than believable, and his service to the crown would get him his commission.
Ryan does a nice job of getting Watson's tone right, and even the voice of Holmes he hears when he tries to think a problem through. Watson discovers there is a serial killer operating in the British trenches, and though he isn't believed immediately, and the concept itself is anathema to the officers above him, his investigations are as dogged as you'd expect, and more dangerous given the context of the front. Ryan's descriptions of the trenches are vivid and horrifying—appropriate at this time of year, in the centenary of the Great War and with Armistice Day approaching—as is his straightforward portrayal of the rigid class system in effect not just among the fighting men, but also in the hospital wards. This impedes not only the tactics of modern war, but Watson's ability to treat its victims, as well as track down the killer. There's a neat contrast drawn as well with his portrait of a German sniper, through whom Ryan manages to draw out some of the moral complexities of modern war. With poison gas floating across no-man's land, there is an eerie echo of the present-day's WMDs just as much as Watson's Afghan service echoed in the modern TV update of Holmes.
But what makes Dead Man's Land work as a Holmes pastiche is the way Ryan's mystery turns out to be so true to Doyle's style. Because for all the brilliance of the Holmes-Watson partnership, and the great villainy of Moriarty, Doyle was working very much in the puzzle side of the mystery world. It's interesting that the British Crime Writers Association named Agatha Christie the greatest crime writer, and one of her stories the greatest as well, because she follows so closely in the Holmesian tradition, of characters not being who they are, and of issues of primogeniture, inheritance, and family status being so important.
In Ryan's story, Holmes does respond to his friend's call for help, and the mystery is solved by the two together, but not before a no-man's land finale that puts War Horse to shame. For die-hard Holmes' fans, this will be a satisfying climax, and for other readers, Ryan's mix of the traditional and the new is like the war itself, grim, modern, and endlessly fascinating.
Dead Man's Land by Robert Ryan
Simon & Shuster, £7.99, ISBN 9781849839570
note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)