Robert Ryan - Take Cover, Watson!

Written by Robert Ryan

ROBERT RYAN is an author, journalist and screenwriter. He was born in Liverpool and moved to London to study natural sciences at university. He began his writing career in the late 1980s for The Face, Arena and the US edition of GQ, before moving to a staffjob in the Sunday Times. In 1999, after the publication of his first novel, Underdogs, he left to go freelance, although he is still a frequent contributor to the newspaper. He has published a total of fourteen novels under his own name, the latest being The Sign of Fear, and two (Steel Rain and Copper Kiss) as Tom Neale. The latter have been optioned by Fremantle TV with a view to creating a TV series. Ryan is currently working on his nextnovel and a variety of television projects. Find out more at

Never let it be said that it is a waste of time for an author to meet his or her public. Without an audience suggestion at a library talk I was giving, my new Dr Watson novel (the fourth in the series) would be a very different beast. At the event, I announced that it was to be called The Two Headed League, and would feature Dr John Watson in WW1 working with a celebrity partner - not Sherlock Holmes - to solve a series of killings at country houses across England.

A hand shot up. “Why,” the gentleman asked, “when London is such a vital character in the original Conan Doyle stories, don’t you set at least one of the novels in that city?”

It slightly took the wind from my sails. He was right. The first in the series, Dead Man’s Land, mainly takes place in the trenches of Flanders. The second, The Dead Can Wait, in Norfolk and Essex, and the most recent (A Study in Murder) in a POW camp for British officers, after Watson is captured by the Germans.

I realised that in my efforts to avoid pastiche-ing Conan Doyle, I had ignored a key element of the original stories - the capital, or as ACD had it: “London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.”

The Two Headed League went on the back burner. The sequence of novels had taken me – or rather Dr Watson – up to 1917. What, I wondered, was happening on the Home Front in that year? Well, as it turned out a great deal, including the Blitz.

But, I hear you ask, didn’t the Blitz take place in 1940? Well, yes, the famous one. But in 1917, after the Zeppelins had proved too vulnerable to incendiary shells, the Germans began to send over fixed wing Gotha bombers. There were many similarity between the bombing campaigns of 1917/18 and 40/41 – Londoners took to the tube stations for shelter, there was loss of life – most famously at the Upper North Street School in the East End, where eighteen died, the majority aged 4-6 – and a system of early warnings/all clear was developed.  The latter were crude - a policeman on a bicycle with a placard saying “Take Cover” and blowing his whistle warned of enemy aircraft (motor cars were also co-opted where available), while Boy Scouts blowing bugles indicated that the danger had passed.

A fixed wing Gotha bomber

Throughout the summer of 1917 and into September, whenever the moon was full and the bombers of the “English Squadron” could navigate by the silvery arrow of the Thames, right into the heart of London, the sound of the Gotha’s engines pulsed across the city, often causing panic in the populace. The South Coast suffered, too, with Hastings, Dover and Margate enduring multiple raids, and again the mere sound of the approaching Mercedes and Maybach engines struck terror into those on the ground. The phenomenon became known as “The Gotha Hum” (even if the planes were sometimes the enormous Zeppelin-Staaken Riesenflugzeuge, or Giants) and the seeds of my new novel, The Sign of Fear, grew from that. What if someone could create a bogus “hum” to clear the streets of London, as a cover for perpetrating an ambitious and terrible crime?

There are other elements in there – the first cases of the Spanish flu, the frailty of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s rogue brother, the torpedoing of hospital ships by the Germans, the disgraceful treatment by the government of those maimed and blinded in the trenches. But at its heart are Major John Watson and a very unlikely new partner, both trying to thwart the nefarious schemes masked by the phony Gotha Hum. Actually, come to think of it, it could still have been called The Two Headed League after all. Still, I’d like to thank the unknown audience member who nudged me towards London as the scene of this particular crime.


The Sign of Fear

published by Simon & Schuster

January 14, 2016.

Hbk £20.00

Buy It


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