Check the log, shipmate: Dewey Lambdin has left Alexander Kent and C.S. Forester hull-down in an ocean of words and is closing on Patrick O'Brian as the most prolific historical novelist to celebrate a Royal Navy mariner during the age of sail. Qualitative comparisons aside, that’s no small feat, as “Reefs and Shoals” is the author’s 18th yarn about a briny Brit who swashbuckles through the scuppers all the way up to a peerage with blue-water derring-do.
Knighted and titled by 1805, our hero is ashore in a Portsmouth inn when the book opens, not hauling sheets but nestling between them: “To Captain Alan Lewrie’s lights, no place was better on such a cold day than to be snug in a warm, soft bed with a toast-warm woman.” But belay aw’ that. Duty calls …
Pages later, the frigate Reliant is sailing through as fierce a nor’easter as ever made up into a maelstrom or threatened to sink a ship. Truth be told, winning the lady and beating it out of the English Channel between the Scylla of the Lizard and the Charybdis of Brest are among the book’s most engaging passages. Thereafter come doldrums of detail as Lewrie sails for the Bahamas, Spanish Florida and ports north to search out and destroy foreign privateers.
Part of Mr. Lambdin’s appeal for some is part of his problem for others. He describes the arts of seamanship in knotted detail, albeit with the narrative force of a diesel maintenance manual. Not for him the earnest skylarking of Forester’s Horatio Hornblower or the literate power of O'Brian’s oeuvre, as vital, beautiful and deep as a tropical lagoon. He writes of black-powder-ordnance like a Napoleonic Tom Clancy, while some passages read like instructions pirated from a piloting almanac:
“The squadron had sailed on out the Northeast Providence Channel past the lower-most tip of Great Abaco, the Hole-in-the-Wall, then up the Eastern coast past Cherokee Sound, Little Harbour, Hope Town, and Marsh Harbour.” He also favors the gale-force digression to catch up a reader on what happened decades earlier and several volumes astern.
Thus, when Lewrie runs into Captain Forrester, an old wardroom adversary, “his piggy eyes darting … as ‘sulled up’ as a bullfrog,” we learn that our erstwhile midshipman had “come down with the Yellow Jack and had been put ashore, to most-like die, from the Parrot schooner, had spent some time on staff to Rear Admiral Sir Onsley Matthews at Antigua, then had finally won a seagoing berth aboard the HMS Desperate under that daft lunatick, Commander Tobias Treghues. Francis Forrester had been cater-cousin and ‘pet’ to Treghues, and … back during the American Revolution been a fubsy, crusty, round young fellow and an arrogant, sneering pig to boot.” And he’s not even the worst scoundrel here.
That would be the unknown ringleader of the privateering cabal, which is rampaging the high seas, hiding in a maze of coastal rivers and fens and abusing the precious neutrality of the young United States. In a manner that would make Arthur Conan Doyle proud, Lewrie braids up a theory of their sly operations, then hunts them down with his squadron of sloops and gunboats. This is a man of parts who keeps cats in his cabin, plays the pennywhistle and can be moved to tears. Yet Lewrie proves to be the most chillingly coldblooded of the maritime champions.
In terms of bookmaking, St. Martin's Press deserves both kudos and cudgels. Volume 18, like recent numbers, boasts an airy graphic design with apt decorations and helpful maps. One diagram identifies the 40 major parts of a full-rigged ship; another names the points of sail, from “full and by” to “free and clear,” along with the 32 points of the compass, North, North by East, North-Northeast, Northeast by North, Northeast, etc.
Displaying period idiosyncrasies like flying fish, Mr. Lambdin uses “lanthorn” for lantern and Sutherly for the direction in faux verisimilitude, then drops words like “consols” (a British government bond) along with the occasional anachronism, e.g. “cloak and dagger.” Pecksniffian readers may cavil at the erratic spellings and typos that dot the text like weevils in hardtack: “mights” for “nights;” “moring” for “morning,” even “eats” for “cats.” Give that proofreader a dozen lashes and set the publisher adrift in a dory.
Yet can there be too many sea stories for those of us who drink them down like grog? I say “Three cheers!” for Mr. Lambdin, Forester and Kent, for their brother-in-prose James L. Nelson (whose debut “American Revolution at Sea” novel grew into a series, then a trilogy, then a “saga”) and, of course, for the lion of the pride, Patrick O'Brian. To my lights, the Yankees Lambdin and Nelson deserve special notice now- because they’re stillstandingtheir watch. Hold yer course. Write on.
Philip Kopper is the publisher of Posterity Press Inc.