‘The Dead can Wait’ is a Dr Watson thriller.

Although I’ve only read a few of the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Conan Doyle, I am as fascinated as most by the great detective with his brusque manner and unerring eye for the telling detail. Perhaps it is odd that I keep finding myself reading other writers’ takes on the characters instead of seeking out the original stories. Perhaps this is a deficit I ought to remedy, as I do recall enjoying ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. Regardless, I was quite pleased to find this novel in my bag of goodies from May’s Crimefest.

What’s it about?

Having endured horrors at the Western Front, Dr Watson is back home, trying to treat soldiers suffering from shellshock – whilst still suffering from a touch of it himself. As he fights to get recognition for the genuine trauma the soldiers are suffering, he’s summoned by none other than Winston Churchill to investigate a mysterious incident involving a wartime secret of immense strategic importance. Dr Watson has no desire to get involved, but Churchill has bait: he has Sherlock, detained under DORA after he refused to assist the MP.

Upon arriving in Sussex, Watson is hampered at every turn as he tries to discover what, exactly, killed eight men in the middle of a training exercise – after first destroying their sanity. The army isn’t exactly keen on transparency and the one remaining survivor isn’t talking. Can Watson solve the mystery before the great secret is revealed? And is there really something seriously wrong with the once remarkable Sherlock Holmes?

What’s it like?

A fascinating insight into various aspects of life during World War I. A complex, evolving mystery, peopled with characters who are absolutely convinced they are doing the right thing, even as other people die. A convincing historical thriller with delightful flashes of well-timed humour.

There’s an awful lot of plot and the opening chapters bounce around a bit like I imagine an army jeep might as it careens over hillocks and nearly tilts into the mud. The reader is shown a range of situations and characters, all of whom do gradually get stitched into the overall tapestry to create a suitably twisty story. I can’t share one of my favourite discoveries as it would be a plot spoiler, but suffice to say, one colonel is going to wind up with a very red face!

Ryan’s greatest achievement here is illuminating the British government’s mad rush to use their wonderful new technology, without ensuring adequate training for soldiers, numbers of vehicles, etc. Similarly, their despotic and manipulative attitude towards their own population is well conveyed, without the reader ever feeling lectured by an author who has Done Their Research and Will Use It All!

Final thoughts

The atmosphere is suitably dark, the comic touches delightful and the overall effect very readable. Possibly the ending is a little prolonged, but then the whole book is an enjoyable canter rather than a headlong gallop. So rather unlike the British Government’s wartime attitude, then…

I’ll definitely be reading another one of these, and seeking out some more of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, too.

‘The Dead Can Wait’,
Robert Ryan,
Simon & Schuster, 2014, paperback