KING, SHIP AND SWORD: AN ALAN LEWRIE NAVAL ADVENTURE
By Dewey Lambdin
St. Martin’s Press, $25.99 358 pages
REVIEWED BY JOSEPH C. GOULDEN
A jacket blurb quotes a reviewer: “You could get addicted to this series. Easily.” True. So very true. A score of pages into Dewey Lambdin’s rousing adventure yarn, and I was hooked. Totally. So much so that I admit to hurrying to an online used-book service to snatch up as many earlier volumes in this 16-volume (to date) series as I could find.
The best compliment I can give to Mr. Lambdin is this: If you enjoyed the Flashman series by British writer George MacDonald Fraser, featuring the feckless English soldier of fortune Sir Harry Paget Flashman, who roamed from war to war - and from bedroom to bedroom, when things were quiet on the battlefield - the exploits of his nautical counterpart, Alan Lewrie, will be equally satisfying.
Parallels abound. Both characters were cashiered from school at an early age, and for good reason (Lewrie thought it good sport to blow up the headmaster’s outhouse and carriage). Both took up military careers, both relied on guile and flim-flam to advance their careers. Their conduct? Absolutely outrageous. And absolutely hilarious much of the time as well. The major difference is that whereas Flashman seemingly prided himself on his cowardice, Lewrie is happiest when slashing his sword at whatever enemy might be at hand, be they French, Dutch, Spanish or pirates.
The period covered by the series is the late 1700s into the 1800s, when the European powers were perpetually at one another’s throats, both on the Continent and in the colonies. Gore enough for all. The beauty of the series, as I quickly found, is that Mr. Lambdin gives enough background on Lewrie to permit each volume be a stand-alone read, although after two books I decided to defer further reading until the mails bring me the first in the set. He takes some liberties with history from time to time - but what the hey?
The volume at hand is set in 1801, when the Peace of Amiens has brought a temporary halt to the fighting between Britain and France. But neither side is particularly happy with the lull, so the admiralty turns to Lewrie, now with the rank of captain, but unhappily idle at half-pay at his country home. His long-suffering wife and in-laws “despise him like the Devil hates Holy Water” and “hold him in as much regard as a sack of dead barn rats!” Lewrie is expected to be a gentleman farmer, but he is as ignorant of agriculture as “his two pet cats are of celestial navigation.”
Lewrie’s assignment is to go to Paris to see if he can detect any signs that the Emperor Napoleon intends to wage war again. In a halfhearted attempt to mend things with his wife, Caroline, he takes her along on sort of a “second honeymoon.” But assorted - and staggeringly exotic - women from his past seem to turn up at every turn, and Lewrie, shall we say, has trouble keeping his hands off them. (Mr. Lambdin’s descriptions of these encounters tend to be a bit more frisky than the Flashman books, so you might wish to make some excisions before passing this one on to your Aunt Tillie.)
In any event, Lewrie arranges an audience with Napoleon, where he intends to hand over a number of swords surrendered to him by French officers over the years. Enter now a good sub-theme: espionage. One Matthieu Fourchette, an aide to Napoleon’s spymaster, Joseph Fouche, sees Lewrie’s name on the guest list and realizes that he is the same captain who did covert missions in the past while at sea. He deduces that while in Paris, Lewrie is “directed by secret agents from [the British] Foreign Office” and hence must be treated with suspicion.
(Both Fouche and Fourchette, of course, were true-life personages in French espionage. Fourchette thinks that Fouche is somewhat paranoid about spying; namely, that he “spent so many years of sniffing out opposition where there was really no opposition” that he had become fixated on the subject.)
And in fact Lewrie does have an ongoing intelligence link, a mysterious man named Zachariah Twigg, of the British secret service, who has repeatedly pressed him into service for two decades, and who flits in and out of the series of books. In any event, at his audience in the palace, Lewrie manages to offend Napoleon, and word goes out that the emperor wants him killed.
Now we enjoy his flight across France, outwitting French agents at every turn - high adventure of the page-turning sort, ending up with a raging sea battle that is a given in Mr. Lambdin’s books. Lewrie, of course, emerges victorious.
Heres an admission. I love Mr. Lambdin’s descriptions of life aboard a British man-of-war - how sailors man and fire guns; what a seaman eats and wears; the sensations of battle at sea. But given my total lack of knowledge of sailing, I decided early on to ignore the shouted orders on how to tack the ship during battle, for I found the commands unintelligible. No matter. Mr. Lambdin’s skill with words is a delight on nearly every page.
Here, for instance, is the description of a boorish officer: “Ye can’t miss him. … He’s the chin of an otter, talks louder than an angry Bosun, and laughs like a daft donkey.” Or the coquette preening of a former amour he meets with his wife at his side: “She batted her lashes nigh-fit to stir a small breeze, playing the innocent minx, eliciting congratulatory coos from [a British diplomat present] and a shrug of false modesty from her companion.”
In sum, a rousing good read, and you can absorb a good deal of interesting history and nautical warfare at the same time.
Joseph C. Goulden’s nautical skills do not extend beyond a rowboat. His e-mail address is JosephG894@aol.com