Top positive review
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Ambitious, original and powerful
on 13 November 2013
I came to this book, my first acquaintance with Robert Ryan's novels, with some misgivings. It seemed to be in questionable taste to set a detective story at the battlefront during the First World War, which saw the flower of a generation slaughtered. This feeling was no doubt reinforced by my starting reading on Remembrance Day.
It seems to me very much to Ryan's credit that he comes up with convincing answers to the charge that lies behind these feelings. The novel does not flinch from facing us with the realities of life on and close to the front line, the horrific injuries, mutilations and deaths, the role of nurses and VADS and the tensions that so often arose between them, the fear, the boredom, the increasing roles of snipers and gas, the young officers sometimes all but fresh from school and their enormous responsibilities for trying to sustain morale. Then we have the constant lack of adequate supplies of food and clothing, the rats, lice and infection that the improvised hospitals had to cope with on top of what the shells brought them, again not always with adequate equipment, to save lives, limbs and to ease the dreadful pain and terror of casualties. Mr Ryan brings all of this home to us with charring clarity and without a trace of forced sentiment.
He also demonstrates the camaraderie, the selflessness, the simple acceptance of the need to hold firm and support one another. At the same time we are aware of the larger world beyond the war, the factories for instance that men who survive hope to return to, the way in which life at the front starts to shift long-engrained attitudes. There is always this sense of time moving on, perhaps most dramatically brought to life in the running theme of the suffragette movement, its objectives and their connections to even larger changes starting to rumble into life and destined to affect society as a whole.
Interwoven with all this is the character of Dr Watson, now in his post as a major and medical officer following his split from Sherlock Holmes. He, indeed, is the central character of the novel, still the bluff, stiff upper-lipped acolyte that we meet in the Doyle stories but now under the pressure of events maturing into a far more rounded character, he too changed by the extraordinary new circumstances he finds himself in. And little is more extraordinary than the plot, well worthy of the deductive powers of the maestro himself.
I'm still uncertain as to whether the implausible plot dovetails successfully with the naturalism and serious concerns of the novel as alluded to above. What, I think, can be said is that Ryan holds the reader's intention until we are impelled to read on, as I was, well into the early hours of the morning. It is a daring venture, as is the introduction of Winston Churchill, then in some disgrace after incidents when he was Minister for the Admiralty.
I think this is a much better book than some of the rather patronizing comments quoted on the covers might suggest. Mr Ryan can certainly write and I, for one, shall hope to encounter his skills again soon.