The Sign of Fear (Book Review)

The Sign of Fear

by Robert Ryan
Simon & Schuster UK (January 2016 UK; March 2017 US)
448 p. ISBN 9781471135125

Publisher’s Summary

A stunning Dr. Watson thriller from the bestselling author of Dead Man’s Land, The Dead Can Wait, and A Study in Murder.

Autumn, 1917. London is not the city that Dr. John Watson and Sherlock Holmes once knew. Terror has come from the sky and Londoners are scurrying underground in fear. Then tragedy strikes Watson. An old friend, Nurse Jennings, is on a medical boat that’s torpedoed—with no survivors. And his concert-going companion, Sir Gilbert Hardy, is kidnapped.

Then comes the gruesome ransom demand, for Sir Gilbert and four others, which will involve terrible mutilation unless the demands are met.

Help comes from an unlikely source when Watson finds himself face-to-face with his old ruthless adversary, the “She Wolf” Miss Pillbody. She makes him an offer he can’t refuse and so an unlikely partnership is formed—a detective duo which will eventually uncover a shocking case of murder and find Watson on board a German bomber, with a crew intent on setting London ablaze.

General Review

Today I wanted to take a look at a book that technically came out over a year ago; however, the United States edition came out in March, providing wider access to many of our society members.

I am talking, of course, about the fourth in Robert Ryan’s excellent Dr. Watson series (which I have personally been referring to as the “Watson at War” series, but Amazon tells me it is actually the Doctor Watson Thriller series).  Mr. Ryan is a member of the Society, and with good reason, given the focus of his books!  The fourth book, The Sign of Fear, picks up not too long after the third in the series left off.  In an effort not to spoil the series, if you haven’t read it, I won’t go into too much detail about it, so please forgive me if this review is a bit vaguer than usual; every book in the series is intricately connected, and to discuss it would spoil it—and this is one series I recommend walking into unspoiled!

The premise of the series is based on Watson’s comment in LAST, about how he has signed up to serve in World War I.  Each of the books is set in a different aspect of WWI: the first was the Front; the second was the work of spies; the third was POW camps, and this, the fourth, is about the London bombings.  Watson is back on English soil, though his war service is by no means over, as demonstrated throughout.

Ryan’s books are incredibly honest in how they depict the War; there are no Heroes.  The English become monstrous in their desperation to win; Germans are humanized and given personal motivations for what they do, even as they continue on as spies and enemies.  The balance between the two sides is carefully maintained, never tipping too far over in one direction, with the overall understanding that the true evil is war itself.  Watch, in particular, for the chess scene.  An at times overdone motif, it is executed skillfully and tragically here.

While the book is a war story, it is also a mystery.  Ryan has said in interviews that he set out to write a story about a “detective in the trenches” (referencing his first book in the series), and the idea of a crime, a mystery, happening during a war has continued throughout the series.  The mystery is dense, with a many different threads that very slowly come together to form the bigger picture.  At times the plot can slow down quite a bit, in the pursuit of details and historical accuracy, but I never found it going so slow that my attention wandered.  Instead, it gave me time to ponder on the clues the reader and Watson are given.

The secondary characters are excellent, skillfully drawn and given unique personalities and motivations.  I wish Ryan would give more to his women characters; without spoiling, I will say that they often don’t continue throughout the series as a whole, something I find disappointing given how wonderfully they’re portrayed.  Otherwise, I find myself connecting with and adoring (or passionately hating!) the original characters, something not always easily done when it comes to Holmesian and Watsonian pastiches.  Miss Pillbody is particularly delightful as a character.

I just love this series.  It’s one of my favourites out there right now, and one that I think any Watsonian can sink their teeth into.  They are dense, weighty volumes, and this fourth book was a superb addition to the series as a whole.

What About Our Watson?

Years ago, I lamented that, while characters like Lestrade, Moriarty, and Mrs. Hudson all have series’ devoted to their points-of-view and stories (which is wonderful!), Watson is continually relegated to sidekick, with no series devoted to him.  This is the only one I’ve found so far (though, of course, if you know of another series devoted to Watson and his stories, do let me know!), and it gives us an absolutely phenomenal Watson.

The Watson we meet in this book is older, sadder, worn from his experiences in the war so far.  His depression and grief are overwhelming and incredibly realistic.  They also drive much of his action through the book, which at times leads him to impulsive, reckless actions that are fascinating to watch.  Despite the sadness, though, we still have the brave, compassionate, intelligent man from Canon.  One of the things I love best about this series is that it makes Watson the detective, though not the same kind of detective that Sherlock Holmes is.  The relationships that Watson has with people are one of the things that makes him effective as a detective, for instance; people trust him, and tell him things, and so he is granted access to information that few other people have.

The friendship between Watson and Holmes is exquisitely agonizing.  One of the things this series does so well is show a friendship that is aged, one where two people know each other so well, perhaps too well, and that circumstances and distance cannot necessarily diminish the strength of that friendship.  Watson and Holmes are not always in agreement in this book; nonetheless, they are always there for each other.  (Fun fact: sometimes I had to put the book over my face and shriek loudly about the beautiful relationship they have in this book and the series.)  Watsonians will also be interested to know that Holmes is very much a secondary character in this book, not appearing for long stretches at a time; the narrative is very much focused on the good doctor.

I love this portrayal of Watson; can more writers take their lead from Ryan when writing him?

You Might Like This If You Like:

War stories; historical fiction; depictions of grief; post-Canon speculation

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