For the Doctor Watsons of this world, as opposed to the Sherlock Holmeses, success in the province of detective work must always be, to a very large extent, the result of luck. Sherlock Holmes can extract a clue from a wisp of straw or a flake of cigar-ash. But Doctor Watson has got to have it taken out for him, and dusted, and exhibited clearly, with a label attached.
The average man is a Doctor Watson. We are wont to scoff in a patronising manner at that humble follower of the great investigator, but, as a matter of fact, we should have been just as dull ourselves. We should not even have risen to the modest level of a Scotland Yard Bungler. We should simply have hung around, saying: “My dear Holmes, how——?” and all the rest of it, just as the downtrodden medico did.
So wrote P.G. Wodehouse in Psmith in the City, but Robert Ryan doesn’t agree.
In Dead Man’s Land (2013) he picks up the hint at the end of His Last Bow that Watson will be joining his ‘old service’, and therefore enlisting as an Army doctor. Watson therefore heads off to the Western Front, where the rats were at least as gigantic as those of Sumatra.
Sherlock Holmes disapproves of this course of action (for reasons not adequately explained, but the separation is crucial to the plot). When Watson comes across murders (I thought he would, didn’t you?) he is therefore on his own.
He deals with them very efficiently, with only a little help from his former friend. I like the way that Robert Ryan decides not to treat Watson as a bumbling twerp, but gives him a keen intelligence, as well as a desire to prove that he too can solve mysteries.
Unlike some other detective writers who venture onto the Western Front, Robert Ryan seems to know what he is talking about. Both the military and the medical detail is conveyed confidently, and the book is a good read that saw me very nicely though a couple of long train journeys. Recommended.