A Study in Murder

Written by Robert Ryan
Review by Claire Cowling

Reimagining the Holmes-Watson partnership in the early decades of the 20th century is made easy, and comes alive in this latest “Dr Watson” thriller by Robert Ryan. It is 1917, and Dr Watson is held captive in one of the more notorious German prisoner-of-war camps. When a man dies, the camp authorities manoeuvre to get Watson to investigate. But when others die, too, and Watson is not convinced that their deaths were of natural causes, his investigations begin to ruffle feathers, and he needs to watch his own back. While he utilises the inescapable voice of Holmes in his head to help him, plans are afoot to save Watson in a way that spells certain death for Holmes.

This is a very clever amalgamation of historical detail and intertextual fiction. Watson’s lengthy time in the prisoner-of-war camps enables the author to contextualise his novel firmly within the detailed realism of World War I Germany, while his relationship with Holmes is never far from his thoughts. Much has been made in recent times of the homoerotic nature of the detectives’ partnership, and while Watson refutes this in Ryan’s book, the depth of the relationship for both the characters and their readership is reinforced through the psychic device employed. To see both protagonists work independently of each other, yet towards the same ends, lends a literary glue to the varied strands of this story, to create a book full of intrigue and suspense.

For Holmes and Watson fans, I recommend this book for its literary intertextuality, certainly, but equally for its insight into the prisoner-of-war camps during World War I. This is a detailed history, as much as it is a fiction, and well worth the read.