NIGHT OF THE PHOENIX

Late last year, with little fanfare, a piece of Europe’s travel jigsaw fell out of the box, never to be retrieved. In December 2013, it was announced that the Elipsis Trenhotels, the overnighters that ran from Paris to Madrid and Barcelona, would cease operating. I felt a little pang of regret at the news. I was hardly a regular – four trips in three years – but I had a soft spot for them. The trains weren’t perfect – the rolling stock was certainly showing its age – but they had an authentic Spanish feel, particularly if you took the 11pm dining slot and then retired to the lively bar for a couple of hours.

The Trenhotels were the victim of speed. The tracks from France into Spain have been upgraded and a sleek if rather anonymous daytime TGV can now whisk you to Barcelona from Paris in 6.5 hours, shaving close to four hours off the old overnight journey time. That’s progress. It’s a pattern likely to repeated all over Europe, as high-speed negates the need for slow, expensive sleepers. And yet…

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I like sleeper trains, even if, for me, they are a misnomer. I rarely actually sleep that well on them, but I love the rituals of the overnighter: dinner, drink, bed, early breakfast, lying watching the train slide into the suburbs of your destination. With Trenhotels gone (some still operate across Spain, although they, too, are threatened by HS developments) I wondered just what overnight adventures were left in Europe. Then a friend raved about the night train to Prague from Amsterdam and decided I had to try it before that, too, was scrapped.

And so I came to be standing on a platform at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, waiting for a City Night Line train (called The Copernicus or The Phoenix, depending on its direction) to take me through Holland, across Germany and over the Czech border. To me, the very route evoked the thrill of a Graham Greene or Eric Ambler novel, an express straight onto the heart of mysterious Mitteleuropa. Well, not that much of an express. You depart Amsterdam at 7pm, arrive in Prague at 9.30am, with breakfast served in bed about an hour before that.

I had booked a double cabin for my wife and I (there are seats or couchette options as well) in coach 171 and counted off the carriages as the train pulled in. It was enormous. It is actually a triplex – at some point in the night the front is uncoupled and heads off to Copenhagen, the middle to Warsaw and, finally, our rear carriages to Prague. As this multi-national monster slid by, I read off the labels on the coaches: 167…168..169…170…172.

No, hold on. You’ve forgotten 171? I asked the guard in my best German (nearly all of it gleaned from Commando comics). Nein, he said. It’s just Kaput. You’ll have to take a couchette.

Six-berth couchettes and I have been so over since I shared one out of Paris with an Amorous American and his new English girlfriend Valerie (yes, it’s etched on my memory a decade later) and a German with a peculiar whistling snore that sounded like he was auditioning for One Man and His Dog. But, the guard assured me, we would have the couchette compartment to ourselves. No Ride of the Valeries, no nocturnal Pavlovian shouts of ‘come by’ from me.

Somewhat mollified, we asked for directions to the dining car. There’s no dining car on this train the guard said, looking as if I had asked for a Swarovski-studded baguette. Oh, for crying out loud. Eating onboard is an integral part of the experience – think From Russia With Love when the villainous Grant slips up by ordering red Chianti with fish. What sort of night train is this? I demanded. On the Trenhotel I’d be well into my second half-bottle of Alabrino by now.

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There is a Schnackwagen, he said. Then he frowned. But hold on, that’s always on… coach 171, I completed.

There was another food outlet at the front of this very long train, in Borealis, the Copenhagen section. So I swayed and swung through the carriages where, bizarrely, every single connecting door had a different way of opening. It was like some fiendish puzzle, a tracked version of the live-action ‘exit games’ so popular in Eastern Europe. Eventually I found the cupboard that proclaimed itself the Schnackwagen  (actually it was the Deutsche Bahn “Bistro”, which is just as misleading). There were slim pickings on the menu, but I gamely began to order provisions for the long night of the couchette ahead.  Pasta? Nein. Sandwiches? Nein. That thing in the picture that looks like a dried cow’s tongue? Nein. This was turning into more Graham Chapman and Eric Idle than Grahame Greene and Eric Ambler.

I returned to the couchettes with a brace of what my wife described as ‘a piece of donkey between two slices of soggy Ryvita’ (we only managed one), a tin of Pringles and every cold beer they had. Still, she had made the beds and, nicely fuzzy from the beer, we climbed between the sheets, knowing we had a good few hours before we reached… BERLIN.

The word pierced my sleep-befuddled brain. Das ist Berlin, the speaker said. No, no, we’re going to Prague, I said to my wife, it’s just an inconsiderate announcement of a stop en route. But no, we were going to Berlin, like it or not. The train had broken down, said the all-too-cheery guard. Like coach 171, it was Kaput. I looked out at a pre-dawn Bahnhof. We were to transfer to a regular service to Budapest that would stop at Prague.

Sitting up? my bleary wife asked him from her soon-to-be abandoned bed. Ja, he replied, miming a seat, or perhaps a trip to the lavatory. My wife’s expression said it all – Eric Idle became Erik the Red. I looked around to make sure there wasn’t one of those in-case-of-emergency-break-the-glass axes within easy reach.

We did make Prague, two hours later than intended, and not quite with the lukewarm-coffee-and-croissant in bed we’d been anticipating. It left my fantasies of night trains somewhat more careworn than before we left Amsterdam. Would I do it again? Yes. I doubt coach 171 goes missing very often and DB locos are not known for their high failure rate. But next time I’d bring a picnic. And a couple of half-bottles of Albarino.

 

*   I booked through Voyages-SNCF (0844-848 5848, voyages-sncf.com). The City Night Line train to Prague is from £43pp in a couchette or £69 in the phantom double cabin. In Prague, I stayed at the Mandarin Oriental (Nebovidská 459/1, 420 233 088 888, mandarinoriental.com), a bright and airy conversion of an old monastery on the quieter side of the river, where doubles are from £219, room-only. Its restaurant Essencia offers a welcome respite from the heavier side of Czech cooking (tasting menus from £47pp exc drinks – go for the Asian one).

 

A BERLIN HIGH LINE?

I have a soft spot for Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, which was built between 1934-36 and mothballed seventy-odd years later. Yes, it is a symbol of Nazi Germany but, even though its pedigree is suspect, the audacious sweep of the curved building, the 50m-wide canopy to cover the aircraft and its intimidating scale – like all Nazi-era public buildings it was intended to make you feel very small indeed – was and is very impressive.

Souce: Berliner Flughäfen/Archiv

Souce: Berliner Flughäfen/Archiv

Sir Norman Foster called it the ‘mother of all airports’ – after all, the main terminal building is a stunning 1.2 kilometres long. It also featured in my novel about the Berlin Airlift of 1948, Dying Day, re-issued this week by Open Road as an e-book in the USA (see http://www.openroadmedia.com) and I spent a fair amount of time back in 2006-7 poking around the airport.

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So I thought it was a shame when Tempelhof closed to air traffic in 2008. Since then it has entered a twilight phase – the main runways have morphed into a popular public park, but the vast and iconic terminal buildings are only used for ad hoc fashion and music events. A recent conversation with Burkhard Kieker, CEO of Berlin Tourism, however, suggested that there might be an interesting future for the building.  ‘A long section of the roof was designed to support a hundred thousand people – so they could welcome Hitler when he landed and listen to his speeches. My vision is to turn that into something like the High Line in New York – an aerial park, with trees and shrubs and cafes.’

It’s a great idea. Much is being made by Berlin of the 25th anniversary of the wall coming down in November. 2018, though, is the 70th anniversary of the  Airlift, an almost equally important bookmark in the city’s history. It would be very apposite to have something opening on the roof of Tempelhof by then, overlooking the field where the constant flights saved the city from starvation.

WELCOME TO HOTEL NUCLEAR

The Hotel Jalta sits in a prime spot on Wenceslas Square in central Prague. It’s tall and imposing, as it should be given its vintage: the Jalta opened in 1958, when Prague was in thrall to Moscow and public buildings had statements to make. The Jalta, though, is not just another brutalist piece of Socialist Realism. Instead, its lines, both inside and out, are softened by Art Deco and Nouveau touches – the figures carved on the facade, the balustrade of the sweeping staircases and the geometric patterns on the stone- and metalwork. True, the corridors are wide enough to drive a tank down, just in case guests got uppity, so the proportions are definitely in the mode of so-called Stalinist Baroque, but the architect, Antonín Tenzer, did a brilliant job of softening the totalitarian feel of such buildings.

Hotel Jalta Exterior
Nobody is quite sure how Tenzer got away with this subtle celebration of western decadence. Some say he had the ear of the Czechoslovakian president at the time of construction, Antonín Zápotocký, others that he was allowed a little leeway in return for keeping schtum about one of the hotel’s most intriguing amenities – its built-in nuclear bunker.

Papers, please

Papers, please

The subterranean shelter was the first part of the Jalta to be built, the hotel’s construction being a perfect cover for the surreptitious excavations needed. Able to house 150 people, with its own underground water supply and hospital, it was intended to be a Warsaw Pact command centre should, say, Moscow be knocked out in a ICBM strike, as well a bolt-hole for the Czech government.
The Jalta is still open for business, these days as a rather nice 99-room boutique hotel and restaurant (Como), but so is the nuclear bunker. By booking in advance (and paying £2.25) you can tour some of the rooms that have so far been opened to the public. Access is via steep stairs and through a hefty blast door. There are various stagy exhibits and artifacts, but the real star is the structure itself, which comes with what look like torpedo tubes, that are in fact ventilation and communication tunnels that lead to….well, nobody is quite sure. The full extent of the bunker is yet to be established. My guide to Prague, Eva Vondrusová, said: ‘Jalta was where the visiting foreigners all came and stayed. There was even a nightclub. And prostitutes, which was against the law, but nevertheless everyone knew the girls in the basement of the Jalta were for sale.’

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The reason for this laissez-fare by the authorities is clear from an artifact sitting on a desk in one of the rooms – the Czech State Security’s switchboard. It looks like an ordinary old-fashioned wire-and-plug telephone exchange, but in fact this was the device with which the StB could activate the bugs in the rooms. On the hotel plan above the switchboard, the VIP rooms, where journalists and politicians were housed (with, the StB doubtless hoped, the odd call girl or two), are coloured red, so the listeners knew which rooms to go for first.
Eva tells me that the system led to some Le Carre-like tradecraft among the visitors. ‘When the reports of the listening devices were declassified, lots of them said that the operators couldn’t hear the conversation because of loud music or the shower was running. Everyone knew everywhere was bugged – and even the bunker was an open secret. When the Jalta manager was asked who in the hotel knew about the secret bunker, he said everyone who worked here. But those were the days when it was best you said nothing.’ Little wonder that almost everyone I spoke to in Prague brought up the subject of Ukraine and Putin and shivered a little, as if the old, cold days could sweep back at any moment. What lies beneath the Hotel Jalta certainly doesn’t feel like ancient history, not yet at least.

* Hotel Jalta, Václavské náměstí 818/45,
(420 222 822 111, hoteljalta.com). Book a tour of the bunker through the concierge.

Thanks to Eva of CAT Guided Tours (00 420 602 618 354, catguide.cz) for showing me the bunker and to Czech Tourism (020 7631 0427, CzechTourism.com).

I travelled as a guest of Voyages-SNCF (0844-848 5848, voyages-sncf.com), taking the night train from Amterdam to Prague. Of which more later. 

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A Duck With A View

The first thing everyone mentions about Hutong, the Chinese restaurant in The Shard, is not the view (very good) or the service (very jolly) or the red-lantern and dark wood décor (very sleek) but the prices (very high).

HUTONG 1

They are as incredible as Renzo Piano’s you’ll-have-someone’s-eye-out-with-that skyscraper – like the building itself, they just keep on climbing, until you are hovering around £60 for a Peking duck. But everything in The Shard is expensive – when the Shangri-la Hotel opens in May, rooms will start at £350 a night. To visit the viewing platform unannounced you’ll be mugged for £29.95pp (you can knock a fiver off for pre-booking). So when my kids said they’d like to go up The Shard for their half-term treat  I knew I was going to drop at least a hundred quid for the four of us for the outing, before food and drink. (To be fair, there was a very useful kids-go-free special h/t offer for the viewing gallery, but both ours being over 16, we were looking at full price). Oddly, though, Hutong came to the rescue.

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It had just launched a set lunchtime menu of dim sum, any five dishes (e.g. poached wontons with chilli-garlic sauce, ginger and spring onion lobster buns, baked Wagyu beef puffs) for £28pp. OK, so that’s really no bargain by Chinatown standards, but at The Shard it’s a steal (and certainly comparable to Yauatcha in Soho). And you do get four pieces of each one, they are freshly made every morning and they are pretty damn’ fine. Now, I hear you say, four times £28 comes to… but you don’t need one set lunch each. We did two of them (£56) and half a Peking duck (£30), which is flashily carved at your tableside, and left replete after two hours for £86 (plus drinks and 12.5% service). Still expensive, but I haven’t even factored in the view yet.

Hutong is on the 33rd floor, so only about half way up the this anorexic glass pyramid, but even so it’s worth trying to bag a window seat for the always-mesmerising London birds’-eye view (I particularly like looking down on HMS Belfast for some reason, although we were seated on a different side). And if you don’t get a window, there is always the lavatory, from where you can gaze along the river to Tower Bridge and across South London to Kent. In the men’s, the urinals are positioned in front of plate glass windows, so that you stare down on what looks like a vast Hornby construction, with trains snaking in and out of London Bridge Station, feeling like The Fat Controller. Or perhaps Bob Crow.

* Hutong, Level 33, The Shard, 31 St Thomas Street, London SE19RY (020 3011 1257, http://www.aquahutong.co.uk)

photo 5This is the view from the table, looking over Borough Market and Tate Modern.

Thanks to Gina Ryan for the pics.

The Musketeer as Sherlock

A “re-imagined” Three Musketeers starts tonight on BBC. When a couple of months ago I was researching the history of detective fiction for a talk I was giving, I came across a scene where d’Artagnan shows powers of analysis of a crime scene worthy of Holmes himself. So will this facility survive the update? This is the (rather lengthy, but worth it) passage:

“While the king was engaged in making these last-mentioned arrangements in order to ascertain the truth, D’Artagnan, without losing a second, ran to the stable, took down the lantern, saddled his horse himself, and proceeded towards the place his majesty had indicated. According to the promise he had made, he had not accosted any one; and, as we have observed, he had carried his scruples so far as to do without the assistance of the stable-helpers altogether. D’Artagnan was one of those

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who in moments of difficulty pride themselves on increasing their own value. By dint of hard galloping, he in less than five minutes reached the wood, fastened his horse to the first tree he came to, and penetrated to the broad open space on foot. He then began to inspect most carefully, on foot and with his lantern in his hand, the whole surface of the Rond-point, went forward, turned back again, measured, examined, and after half an hour’s minute inspection, he returned silently to where he had left his horse, and pursued his way in deep reflection and at a foot-pace to Fontainebleau. Louis was waiting in his cabinet; he was alone, and with a pencil was scribbling on paper certain lines which D’Artagnan at the first glance recognized as unequal and very much touched up. The conclusion he arrived at was, that they must be verses. The king raised his head and perceived D’Artagnan. “Well, monsieur,” he said, “do you bring me any news?”
“Yes, sire.”
“What have you seen?”
“As far as probability goes, sire—” D’Artagnan began to reply.
“It was certainty I requested of you.”
“I will approach it as near as I possibly can. The weather was very well adapted for investigations of the character I have just made; it has been raining this evening, and the roads were wet and muddy—”
“Well, the result, M. d’Artagnan?”
“Sire, your majesty told me that there was a horse lying dead in the cross-road of the Bois-Rochin, and I began, therefore, by studying the roads. I say the roads, because the center of the cross-road is reached by four separate roads. The one that I myself took was the only one that presented any fresh traces. Two horses had followed it side by side; their eight feet were marked very distinctly in the clay. One of the riders was more impatient than the other, for the footprints of the one were invariably in advance of the other about half a horse’s length.”
“Are you quite sure they were traveling together?” said the king.
“Yes sire. The horses are two rather large animals of equal pace,—horses well used to maneuvers of all kinds, for they wheeled round the barrier of the Rond-point together.”
“Well—and after?”
“The two cavaliers paused there for a minute, no doubt to arrange the conditions of the engagement; the horses grew restless and impatient. One of the riders spoke, while the other listened and seemed to have contented himself by simply answering. His horse pawed the ground, which proves that his attention was so taken up by listening that he let the bridle fall from his hand.”
“A hostile meeting did take place then?”
“Undoubtedly.”
“Continue; you are a very accurate observer.”
“One of the two cavaliers remained where he was standing, the one, in fact, who had been listening; the other crossed the open space, and at first placed himself directly opposite to his adversary. The one who had remained stationary traversed the Rond-point at a gallop, about two-thirds of its length, thinking that by this means he would gain upon his opponent; but the latter had followed the circumference of the wood.”
“You are ignorant of their names, I suppose?”
“Completely so, sire. Only he who followed the circumference of the wood was mounted on a black horse.”
“How do you know that?”
“I found a few hairs of his tail among the brambles which bordered the sides of the ditch.”
“Go on.”
“As for the other horse, there can be no trouble in describing him, since he was left dead on the field of battle.”
“What was the cause of his death?”
“A ball which had passed through his brain.”
“Was the ball that of a pistol or a gun?”
“It was a pistol-bullet, sire. Besides, the manner in which the horse was wounded explained to me the tactics of the man who had killed it. He had followed the circumference of the wood in order to take his adversary in flank. Moreover, I followed his foot-tracks on the grass.”
“The tracks of the black horse, do you mean?”
“Yes, sire.”
“Go on, Monsieur d’Artagnan.”
“As your majesty now perceives the position of the two adversaries, I will, for a moment, leave the cavalier who had remained stationary for the one who started off at a gallop.”
“Do so.”
“The horse of the cavalier who rode at full speed was killed on the spot.”
“How do you know that?”
“The cavalier had not time even to throw himself off his horse, and so fell with it. I observed the impression of his leg, which, with a great effort, he was enabled to extricate from under the horse. The spur, pressed down by the weight of the animal, had plowed up the ground.”
“Very good; and what did he do as soon as he rose up again?”
“He walked straight up to his adversary.”
“Who still remained upon the verge of the forest?”
“Yes, sire. Then, having reached a favorable distance, he stopped firmly, for the impression of both his heels are left in the ground quite close to each other, fired, and missed his adversary.”
“How do you know he did not hit him?”
“I found a hat with a ball through it.”
“Ah, a proof, then!” exclaimed the king.
“Insufficient, sire,” replied D’Artagnan, coldly; “it is a hat without any letters indicating its ownership, without arms; a red feather, as all hats have; the lace, even, had nothing particular in it.”
“Did the man with the hat through which the bullet had passed fire a second time?”
“Oh, sire, he had already fired twice.”
“How did you ascertain that?”
“I found the waddings of the pistol.”
“And what became of the bullet which did not kill the horse?”
“It cut in two the feather of the hat belonging to him against whom it was directed, and broke a small birch at the other end of the open glade.”
“In that case, then, the man on the black horse was disarmed, whilst his adversary had still one more shot to fire?”
“Sire, while the dismounted rider was extricating himself from his horse, the other was reloading his pistol. Only, he was much agitated while he was loading it, and his hand trembled greatly.”
“How do you know that?”
“Half the charge fell to the ground, and he threw the ramrod aside, not having time to replace it in the pistol.”
“Monsieur d’Artagnan, this is marvellous you tell me.”
“It is only close observation, sire, and the commonest highwayman could tell as much.”
“The whole scene is before me from the manner in which you relate it.”
“I have, in fact, reconstructed it in my own mind, with merely a few alterations.”
“And now,” said the king, “let us return to the dismounted cavalier. You were saying that he walked towards his adversary while the latter was loading his pistol.”
“Yes; but at the very moment he himself was taking aim, the other fired.”
“Oh!” said the king; “and the shot?”
“The shot told terribly, sire; the dismounted cavalier fell upon his face, after having staggered forward three or four paces.”
“Where was he hit?”
“In two places; in the first place, in his right hand, and then, by the same bullet, in his chest.”
“But how could you ascertain that?” inquired the king, full of admiration.
“By a very simple means; the butt end of the pistol was covered with blood, and the trace of the bullet could be observed, with fragments of a broken ring. The wounded man, in all probability, had the ring-finger and the little finger carried off.”
“As far as the hand goes, I have nothing to say; but the chest?”
“Sire, there were two small pools of blood, at a distance of about two feet and a half from each other. At one of these pools of blood the grass was torn up by the clenched hand; at the other, the grass was simply pressed down by the weight of the body.”
“Poor De Guiche!” exclaimed the king.
“Ah! it was M. de Guiche, then?” said the musketeer, quietly. “I suspected it, but did not venture to mention it to your majesty.”
“And what made you suspect it?”
“I recognized the De Gramont arms upon the holsters of the dead horse.”
“And you think he is seriously wounded?”
“Very seriously, since he fell immediately, and remained a long time in the same place; however, he was able to walk, as he left the spot, supported by two friends.”
“You met him returning, then?”
“No; but I observed the footprints of three men; the one on the right and the one on the left walked freely and easily, but the one in the middle dragged his feet as he walked; besides, he left traces of blood at every step he took.”
“Now, monsieur, since you saw the combat so distinctly that not a single detail seems to have escaped you, tell me something about De Guiche’s adversary.”
“Oh, sire, I do not know him.”
“And yet you see everything very clearly.”
“Yes, sire, I see everything; but I do not tell all I see; and, since the poor devil has escaped, your majesty will permit me to say that I do not intend to denounce him.”
“And yet he is guilty, since he has fought a duel, monsieur.”
“Not guilty in my eyes, sire,” said D’Artagnan, coldly.
“Monsieur!” exclaimed the king, “are you aware of what you are saying?”
“Perfectly, sire; but, according to my notions, a man who fights a duel is a brave man; such, at least, is my own opinion; but your majesty may have another, it is but natural, for you are master here.”
“Monsieur d’Artagnan, I ordered you, however—”
D’Artagnan interrupted the king by a respectful gesture. “You ordered me, sire, to gather what particulars I could, respecting a hostile meeting that had taken place; those particulars you have. If you order me to arrest M. de Guiche’s adversary, I will do so; but do not order me to denounce him to you, for in that case I will not obey.”
“Very well! Arrest him, then.”
“Give me his name, sire.”
The king stamped his foot angrily; but after a moment’s reflection, he said, “You are right—ten times, twenty times, a hundred times right.”
“That is my opinion, sire: I am happy that, this time, it accords with your majesty’s.”
“One word more. Who assisted Guiche?”
“I do not know, sire.”
“But you speak of two men. There was a person present, then, as second.”
“There was no second, sire. Nay, more than that, when M. de Guiche fell, his adversary fled without giving him any assistance.”
“The miserable coward!” exclaimed the king.
“The consequence of your ordinances, sire. If a man has fought well, and fairly, and has already escaped one chance of death, he naturally wishes to escape a second. M. de Bouteville cannot be forgotten very easily.”
“And so, men turn cowards.”
“No, they become prudent.”
“And he has fled, then, you say?”
“Yes; and as fast as his horse could possibly carry him.”
“In what direction?”
“In the direction of the château.”
“Well, and after that?”
“Afterwards, as I have had the honor of telling your majesty, two men on foot arrived, who carried M. de Guiche back with them.”
“What proof have you that these men arrived after the combat?”
“A very evident proof, sire; at the moment the encounter took place, the rain had just ceased, the ground had not had time to imbibe the moisture, and was, consequently, soaked; the footsteps sank in the ground; but while M. de Guiche was lying there in a fainting condition, the ground became firm again, and the footsteps made a less sensible impression.”
Louis clapped his hands together in sign of admiration. “Monsieur d’Artagnan,” he said, “you are positively the cleverest man in my kingdom.”
“The identical thing M. de Richelieu thought, and M. de Mazarin said, sire.”
“And now, it remains for us to see if your sagacity is at fault.”
“Oh! sire, a man may be mistaken; humanum est errare,” said the musketeer, philosophically.
“In that case, you are not human, Monsieur d’Artagnan, for I believe you are never mistaken.”
“Your majesty said that we were going to see whether such was the case, or not.”
“Yes.”
“In what way, may I venture to ask?”
“I have sent for M. de Manicamp, and M. de Manicamp is coming.”
“And M. de Manicamp knows the secret?”
“De Guiche has no secrets from M. de Manicamp.”
D’Artagnan shook his head. “No one was present at the combat, I repeat; and unless M. de Manicamp was one of the two men who brought him back—”
“Hush!” said the king, “he is coming; remain, and listen attentively.”
“Very good, sire.”

 

Review of Dead Can Wait in The Times

This from Marcel Berlins’ crime round-up:

The Dead Can Wait by Robert Ryan
Dr John Watson was not, it seems, quite as dim as he’s portrayed in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Robert Ryan (with the consent of the Conan Doyle estate) reveals his true mettle. The Dead Can Wait is in no sense a pastiche, but a seriously good, very readable, well-researched novel incorporating the First World War, detection and espionage. It is 1916. Watson has become an expert on the injuries and mental traumas suffered by soldiers in battle. The British are secretly developing a new kind of weapon. But, in its first test, seven men involved become insane, then die spectacularly. The sole survivor is rendered mute. Watson is commanded to discover the causes of the tragedy, but there are foreign spies around and enemies within.
The Dead Can Wait by Robert Ryan, Simon and Schuster, 463 pp, £18.99. To buy this book for £14.99, visit thetimes.co.uk/bookshop or call 0845 2712134

The novel is partly set on ‘the most lethal road in England’, of which more later:

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