What better place to get away with murder than on bloody battlefields, surrounded by death. This is the challenge that meets Dr. John Watson while he is teaching about blood transfusions at the front line of WWI. He just has the simple task of finding out who, how and why, can his skills picked up from his cases with estranged friend Sherlock Holmes, help him with solving this sensitive mystery?
The book opens with Watson arriving in a balloon flight, with the slow, gentle ride in contrast to the violence and horrors of war on the ground below. The landscape is far removed from Conan Doyle's foggy Victorian London and it takes a short while to get used to Watson in this new location, as a much older man and away from his consulting detective companion. Watson is in France to carry out blood transfusions and causes a stir immediately by choosing two VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachment 'nurses'), Mrs Gregson and Miss Pippery, to accompany him to the field hospital, which is frowned upon by the matron.
On a routine round, Watson discovers a body with strange injuries and his suspicions are raised. When more bodies turn up, Watson begins his own investigation with Mrs Gregson (who has a secret past of her own) and a violent revenge plot is uncovered...
I am a fan of Conan Doyle's work and have been unsure whether to read new 'spin-offs', but as with Anthony Horowitz's House of Silk, I really enjoyed this new story about Waston, as well as a smidgen of Holmes. I particularly found it interesting that this book is set in the pairs' 'twilight years' giving an idea of how they both cope without the excitement of their previous existance in London and with their bodies (and occasionally minds) not as strong as they used to be, although the desire to solve crimes is still there.
There are some interesting new characters in the form of ex-suffragete Mrs Gregson, the cast-out American Dr. Myles and the caring Nurse Spence. There is a link to Watson's London past with Winston Churchill making an appearance and some mentions of familiar characters and cases for fans of the orginal stories. As with Horowitz's House of Silk, there are also hints of some unpublished stories which readers of the time may not have been ready for...
The consulting detective himself makes some brief appearances, initially as some imagined asides in Watson's head and later, helping in his own way in his countryside cottage back in England. I felt the essence of the characters of Watson and Holmes are captured very well, with an added dimension of age and liked the fact that although they are no longer speaking, they are still thinking of each other and working on the same case.
Dead Man's Land would appeal to fans of crime thrillers and WWI literature as well as Conan Doyle fans. As someone who has an interest in WWI, I found the work and relationships of VADs and nurses very interesting, as well as the medical advancements during that time.
I was very lucky to be able to ask Robert Ryan some questions about these novel, which you can read here.