Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Devil's Own Luck

The Devil's Own Luck
by David Donachie
Recommended Ages: 14+

It's somewhere around 1793, when the U.K. is at war with France and the world's oceans are alive with navy and merchant vessels, all powered by wind. Former naval officer Harry Ludlow is now a prosperous captain of a British privateer, in partnership with his younger, more artistically inclined brother James. One fine day, they spot an opportunity to tag-team with a 74-gun ship of the line to capture a French frigate, but unfortunately the other British captain happens to be Harry's greatest lifelong enemy – the officer with whom he fought a duel, resulting in the end of his naval career. Long story short, Harry wakes up on the HMS Magnanime to a painful head wound and the news that his schooner has been sunk, his crew has been put aboard the prize and Capt. Oliver Carter has taken full credit for its capture, without even firing a shot.

As if that isn't bad luck enough, Harry finds himself on board what seems to be almost a shot-rolling ship. That is to say, its crew is very unhappy, possibly thinking about mutiny, in part because of the cruelty of its first lieutenant, a drunkard named Bentley. Hated and feared by everybody, including his captain, Bentley seems like just the type to find himself in a dark passage in the bowels of the ship with a dagger stuck through him. But of all the people who had reason to want him dead, it has to be James who is found at the scene with the murder weapon in his hand.

Hampered by the hostility of Capt. Carter, who seems to be bending all his power toward hurting the Ludlows, Harry starts sniffing out the real killer in a desperate hope of clearing his brother's name before they reach a port. It doesn't look good for James, however. Two witnesses are ready to swear they saw him do it. Everybody seems to be closing ranks to keep Harry from getting at the truth. Yet at the same time, there is clearly something amiss on the Magnanime – a secret no one will tell, but that may have something to do with the death of a popular ship's boy and a mysterious power the late Bentley seemed to hold over Carter. Aided at times by a sympathetic lieutenant, an alcoholic surgeon and a personal servant appointed to him from the ship's crew, Harry seems to get closer and closer to cutting the noose off James' neck – if only his hatred of Carter doesn't blind him to the evidence right in front of him.

This is an interesting genre mash-up, combining a historically realistic and often thrilling depiction of naval life in the age of Napoleon with a clever whodunit that almost drinks of the spirit of hardboiled fiction. Well researched and (to my eye at least – I'm no seaman, but I've read all the Hornblower, Aubrey-Maturin and Ramage books) authentic in its depiction of ship life in the age of sail, it doesn't glamorize it; it's quite open about the moral failings, harsh discipline and nasty conditions one had to get used to between the decks. But it also makes a strong case for both the high and low water marks of that world, showing men both at their noblest and in the lowest sink of vice. Harry himself is a man of complex character, neither infallibly right nor quite innocent of other men's blood, but with the more cultured James at one elbow and the devoted Pender at the other, I think he may turn out to be a remarkable force for exposing the truth.

This is the first of six "Privateersman Mysteries," published in the 1990s and featuring the brothers Ludlow. Also publishing under the pen-names Jack Ludlow, Tom Connery and Johnny "Two Combs" Howard, David Donachie specializes in naval historical fiction, mostly set in the Napoleonic area. He is also the author of three "Markham of the Marines" novels, three "SAS/Boat Troop" novels, the "Nelson and Emma" trilogy of biographical fiction about Horatio Nelson, the "John Pearce" series of currently 15 novels following the naval careers of a group of friends known as the Pelicans (the 16th installment, HMS Hazard, is slated for release in October 2021), the "Contraband Shore" trilogy and four "Midshipman Wormwood" short stories.

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