Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock recently, it probably won’t have escaped your notice that the Sherlock Holmes industry has never been in ruder health than it is at the moment. There is the hugely successful feature film franchise starring the ‘bromance’ pairing of Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law. Then there is the excellent BBC series Sherlock, made by Doctor Who writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, which features a modern-day Holmes played to perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch. Rather less impressive is the tacky and derivative Elementary, which has Johnny Lee Miller playing Holmes as a cross between C3P0 and Rain Man and, to add insult to injury, features a female ‘Joan Watson’ to boot! Nevertheless, despite its (many) limitations, Elementary, like Sherlock and the feature films, shows the enduring popularity of the character worldwide. At a recent author and blogger event at the offices of Simon & Schuster, I had the good fortune to meet Robert Ryan, the author of Dead Man’s Land, a novel which introduces an intriguing new twist on Holmesian mythology.
Robert Ryan is an English writer best known for his historical and war novels Death on the Ice and Empire of Sand. A workaholic, Ryan loves to alternate his novels between wildly different time periods in order to keep things refreshing and interesting (both for himself and for his readers). After the publication in 2010 of Signal Red, a novel based on the Great Train Robbery, the idea of going further back in time and writing a novel set in the First World War was something that Ryan found hugely appealing, especially if it was a murder mystery. However, Ryan hit a stumbling block almost immediately when he realised that it would be impractical and unrealistic to have a traditional detective investigating a murder on the Western Front. This initial difficulty, however, inadvertently became a breakthrough for Ryan when he decided to make his ‘detective’ a doctor instead, reasoning that if anything sinister occurred in the trenches then almost certainly the first person to notice would be a doctor. Then, as a Holmes fan, Ryan remembered a reference in His Last Bow: The War Service of Sherlock Holmes (the great detective’s final adventure) to the fact that Doctor Watson had served in the British Army’s medical corps. The ingenious idea then came to him that, if he was going to have a doctor as a hero, why not have John Watson? After all, it stood to reason that Watson might well have picked up something about detection in the course of his long association with Holmes!
Despite the fact that Ryan undoubtedly had a great initial idea, using Watson in a new novel is not that straightforward a matter (unless you happen to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of course!). Part of the problem is that, although Holmes and Watson are generally regarded as public domain, there are some copyright issues concerning the use of the characters. The enduring popularity of Sherlock Holmes has led to hundreds of works based on the character – both adaptations into other media and original stories. The copyright in all of Conan Doyle’s works expired in the United Kingdom in 1980 and are public domain there. All works published in the United States prior to 1923 are in the public domain; this includes all Sherlock Holmes stories with the exception of some of the stories contained within The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. For works published after 1923 but before 1963, if the copyright was registered, its term lasts for 95 years. The Conan Doyle heirs registered the copyright to The Case Book (published in the USA after 1923) in 1981 through the Copyright Act of 1976. This has not put off the majority of writers who have used Holmes and Watson in their stories but, just to be on the safe side, Ryan approached the Administrator of Conan Doyle Copyrights in order to use Watson with their permission. Suffice to say that, as soon as they heard about Ryan’s intriguing proposed use of the character (not to mention his distinguished pedigree as a writer), it took very little persuasion for permission to be granted!
I’m lucky enough to have read Dead Man’s Land, which is yet to be published in the UK, and I’m glad to say that I can recommend it wholeheartedly, both to fans of war fiction and crime thrillers. The story starts out in the trenches of Flanders Field, where men are dying in their thousands every day. When a body turns up with bizarre injuries, Dr Watson finds his suspicions raised. The face has a blue-ish tinge, the jaw is clamped shut in a terrible rictus and the eyes are almost popping out of his head, as if the man had seen unimaginable horror. But this is just the beginning. Soon more bodies appear, and Watson must discover who is the killer in the trenches. In the ensuing story Watson must for once step out of the shadows and into the limelight if he’s to solve the mystery behind the inexplicable deaths – all while surrounded by unimaginable carnage, amidst a conflict that’s ripping the world apart. Ryan is an experienced writer – he was a journalist before his first novel was published – and it really shows in the skill and narrative flair that he employs in order to bring this book to life. I must admit that I took particular joy in the fact that, after always playing second fiddle to Holmes in so many stories, Watson finally gets to play the hero in this one. Long overdue I feel!