Saturday, May 26, 2018

Hornblower and the Atropos

Hornblower and the Atropos was the eighth of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower naval adventure novels to be published, appearing in 1953. The chronological sequence of the stories bears no relationship to the publication order. Chronologically Hornblower and the Atropos comes just before the first published Hornblower novel, The Happy Return.

The victory at Trafalgar has been followed by a series of promotions and thus at the end of 1805 Horatio Hornblower finds himself a very very junior post-captain. He is given command of HMS Atropos. The Atropos is a sloop of war, a class of vessel that would normally be considered too small to be commanded by a post-captain. With her 22 guns the Atropos is however just big enough to justify having a post-captain in command and Hornblower is very grateful to get a command at all.

His first mission is an odd one. He is placed in charge of the flotilla of boats that will bear Lord Nelson’s body to his funeral. It proves to be an exceptionally frustrating task but it does bring him to the attention of the formidable and rather terrifying Admiral John Jervis, Earl of St Vincent.

The Atropos is then despatched to the Mediterranean, on a most unusual mission - to recover sunken treasure. The treasure was aboard a British vessel but unfortunately the wreck is in Turkish waters and the salvage operation has to be undertaken in secret, and that’s the least of Hornblower’s problems. His salvage expert, on loan from the East India Company, is dying from a gunshot wound and there’s nobody else qualified to take charge of the operation.

There's not much action in this story, not until the end, but there’s plenty of adventure and suspense (and when the action does finally kick in it’s pretty exciting). There’s more to being a successful naval captain than fighting battles - the challenges are endless, exasperating and unpredictable. A captain has to be a good tactician but he also needs to be a sound psychologist and an effective manager, and when on detached duty rather than being part of a fleet he finds himself needing to be a diplomatist as well. Hornblower faces some surprising challenges in this story and although often tempted to give in to despair he somehow manages to rise to those challenges. It’s the way this complex man responds to so many varied challenges that interests Forester most of all. This story is as much character-driven as it is plot-driven. Forester was one of those fortunate writers who was equally comfortable with both approaches.

I continue to be impressed by Hornblower’s complexity as a character. He is a most unconventional hero. It’s not just that he is plagued by self-doubts. There’s also the calculated nature of his leadership style as captain, and the fact that his methods are on occasion perhaps just a little morally questionable. He is able to convince himself that sometimes a certain amount of duplicity is justifiable or even necessary, but then he hates himself for it and wonders if he does such things purely for the good of the service or mostly out of self-interest. He is a very self-aware and introspective hero.

Hornblower cannot be described as a particularly happy man. He has an instinctively gloomy outlook which seems to be a kind of self-protection - if you expect the worse you’re pleasantly surprised when things turn out less badly than you’d expected.

Hornblower is also not a man possessed of a great deal of natural human warmth. His marriage seems to have been something that was almost accidental and he is inclined to think it was a mistake. It’s not that it’s actually an overtly unhappy marriage but he has come to realise that he is a man who will always put his career first and that that is hardly fair to a wife and children. He does not appear to have any close friends and his relations with his subordinate officers are somewhat tense.

All this makes Hornblower sound like a very unattractive hero but he isn’t really. For all his self-doubts he’s a thorough professional, a skilful and even brilliant tactician and a fine leader of men. He’s courageous and he’s decisive. His flaws make him more admirable. Being a hero doesn’t come naturally to Hornblower. He has to work at it but he works at it very hard and the hard work pays off. And his flaws make him a more sympathetic character.

Hornblower and the Atropos is highly recommended.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Dead Man’s Music, Christopher Bush

Dead Man’s Music is one of the earlier Ludovic Travers mysteries penned by Christopher Bush. It was published in 1931.

The story begins with the discovery of a body. The man may have hanged himself but Superintendent Wharton suspects foul play. The most suspicious circumstance is that elaborate attempts have been made to change the man’s appearance after death.

As it happens Durangos Limited had received an odd request a few weeks earlier and Ludovic Travers had been despatched to deal with the matter. The request was for a man of unquestioned integrity with a knowledge of music and china. As a result of this earlier involvement Travers is quite certain he recognises the corpse.

That earlier episode had been quite curious. A rather eccentric old man named Claude Rook had played a haunting piece of music for him and had then entrusted Travers with the manuscript with instructions to give it to the person to whom it ought to be given. He assures Travers that he (Travers) will know the identity of this person.

In fact it’s hard to be sure of the identities of any of the people involved in the case. Or even of their nationalities. Also curious is the fact that the manuscript is worthless - the music is unplayable. And yet the one thing Travers is sure of is that the manuscript is very very important. Yet another curious thing - Rook had wanted a man knowledgeable on the subject of china although his collection of china was nothing more than cheap junk.

This is not quite a straightforward whodunit. There’s a bit of a thriller feel to this one. There’s certainly a puzzle here and it’s crucial and it’s a tricky one but it’s not really centred on the identity of the murderer.

I’m not entirely sure this one is absolutely fair play. Although it might be more just to say that Bush plays fair with his clues as long as you understand that the real puzzle isn’t necessarily the obvious puzzle.

All three of Bush’s series detectives appear in this book - economist and private detective Ludovic Travers, John Franklin of the Detective Section of Durangos Limited and Superintendent George Wharton (known affectionately as The General) of Scotland Yard.

There are some very clever ideas in this story and there’s some good misdirection. On the whole though I don’t think it’s one of Bush’s more successful mysteries. The plot contains so many outlandish improbabilities that it’s in serious danger of collapsing under its own weight, and most of the cleverness is connected with what are essentially peripheral matters. These elements mostly serve to disguise the fact that the main plot is not all that interesting.

There are no ingenious unbreakable alibis to be broken in this story (even though Bush was known for his fondness for such things). This novel is in some ways a throwback to the pre-golden age period of detective fiction in which disguises and secret codes played such prominent roles.

Dead Man’s Music is reasonably entertaining but it’s not in the same league as Bush’s best work (such as The Case of the Tudor Queen, Dead Man Twice or The Body in the Bonfire). Bush’s novels are now back in print and easily obtainable. I’d suggest that Dead Man’s Music is definitely not a good starting point.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Stanley J. Weyman's A Gentleman of France

Stanley J. Weyman (1855-1928) was an immensely popular author of historical romances. He was best known for his tales of swashbuckling adventure written in the early part of his career prior to 1904. Weyman enjoyed the esteem of both critics and the reading public and his admirers included Graham Greene.

One word of caution should be offered at this point. Whilst all of Weyman’s books can be regarded as historical romances not all can be regarded as swashbucklers. Of the novels that do most certain qualify as swashbucklers one of the most successful was A Gentleman of France, published in 1893.

Weyman was particularly attracted by sixteenth and seventeenth century French history. A Gentleman of France opens in 1588. This was the period of the Wars of Religion in France, between the Catholics and the Huguenots. It was also the time of the succession crisis, with the Protestant King Henri IV of Navarre being the heir to the throne and with conspiracies afoot to prevent him from succeeding to the throne of France in the event of the death of the current king Henri III. In fact there were countless potential conspiracies complicated even further by foreign meddling.

Gaston, Sieur de Marsac, faces a grim future. He is a Huguenot, he is forty years old and he is penniless. He has the pride of a gentleman but he lacks the financial resources that such a station in life requires. The death of his patron, the Prince de Condé, has left him in desperate straights.

He is therefore overjoyed to receive a summons from the King of Navarre. He is entrusted with a mission, to convey a young woman who is presently being held against her will to a place of safety. Henri of Navarre cannot possibly be seen to be openly involved in this rescue mission which is why the poverty-stricken luckless de Marsac is such an ideal choice to carry it out. He is expendable, and if things go wrong Henri can plausibly claim to have known nothing whatever about the scheme.

The young woman is Mademoiselle de la Vire, a maid of honour at the court of Henri of Henri of Navarre. She proves to be quite a handful of de Marsac. In fact she proves to be a complete nightmare, being wilful, spoilt, impetuous, unpredictable, vindictive and entirely uncooperative. The band of ruffians de Marsac has hired to help carry out his task are another problem. They prove to be even more treacherous than he’d anticipated. In addition it seems that various political crises are all coming to a head and de Marsac is going to be caught in the middle.

Worst of all it turns out that Mademoiselle de la Vire is much more important than de Marsac had been led to believe. In fact it turns out that by a twist of fate she is now more important than anyone could have suspected.

This is a moderately long novel but there are so many plot twists and de Marsac’s path is strewn with so many obstacles and pitfalls and false turnings and there are so many betrayals and counter-betrayals that there’s never any danger of boredom. There’s plenty of action and the sense of danger never lets up for a moment.

While de Marsac is not totally lacking in allies they’re not necessarily allies on whom one wold want to rely absolutely. They have their own agendas. This is even more true of the powerful men who are willing to make use of de Marsac - it’s not that they bear him the slightest ill-will but they are playing for very high stakes and he is a very insignificant very poor very minor petty nobleman and his wellbeing is not exactly their highest priority.

There is, as you might expect in a 19th century English novel, a certain anti-Catholic bias. The Catholic characters are not all wicked but the villains do tend to be Catholics. The Protestant characters do tend to be virtuous and noble. This was such a pervasive feature of English popular culture at the time that Weyman may not even have been conscious of his bias.

Gaston de Marsac is a fine and reasonably complex hero. He is brave and determined but he makes a lot of mistakes and his judgment is erratic. It’s not that he is unintelligent. Far from it. He simply has a tendency, at times, to be a little careless and perhaps inclined to underestimate the difficulties that he faces.

This is very much a swashbuckling adventure. There is a love story here but it takes a definite back seat to the action adventure story.

This is thoroughly enjoyable stuff in the slightly literary tradition of Victorian writers of adventure such as Anthony Hope and Rider Haggard. Highly recommended.

This is thoroughly enjoyable stuff in the slightly literary tradition of Victorian writers of adventure such as Anthony Hope and Rider Haggard. Highly recommended. Pan Books issued this one along with several other Weyman titles in paperback in the early 70s so used copies can be found at very reasonable prices.

Weyman’s 1894 adventure Under the Red Robe is also very much worth reading.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Invisible Bullet & Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant

Max Rittenberg (1880-1965) was an interesting figure in the development of the detective story. Born in Australia of German and Russian Jewish ancestry he moved to Britain and had a short but prolific carer as a writer of detective stories. After giving up fiction writing he concentrated on his very successful career in advertising and public relations.

His two series of detective short stories are interesting and were at the time somewhat pioneering. His tales of Dr Xavier Wycherley (collected in The Mind-Reader) are among the earliest examples of detective stories featuring a psychologist hero. There are hints of the paranormal but essentially these are psychological detective stories.

His other series detective was Magnum, an early exemplar of the scientific detective. Magnum is a bad-tempered conceited and arrogant middle-aged scientist who dabbles in crime solving if a case interests him or (more often) if he’s offered enough money to make it worth his while. He has a shy young Welsh assistant named Meredith who does all the detail work (for which Magnum has no patience) while Magnum concentrates on the big ideas.

The stories date from the period just before the First World War and many of the solutions involve technological wizardry rather than pure science. Coachwhip have published all the Magnum stories in The Invisible Bullet & Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant.

If you’re expecting really elaborate scientific puzzles you might be disappointed.The scientific elements are often fairly straightforward although the plots themselves do have some very clever ideas. In many cases the scientific elements simply add a touch of the exotic to otherwise unremarkable if competent crime tales. At times it seems that Rittenberg is actually more interested in the psychology of the people involved in his stories, and in the social implications, than in the actual science. Given that Rittenberg’s field was public relations rather than science this is perhaps not surprising.

The Mystery of the Sevenoaks Tunnel isn’t all that scientific but it has a nicely ingenious solution. A man has been killed falling from a railway carriage. It appears to be an accident but his life was heavily insured and the insurance company believes it was a case of suicide, which means they don’t have to pay up on the policy. Magnum believes the key to the puzzle is that the man was carrying a bottle of medicine and it’s medicine that has only one purpose - to treat sleeping sickness. An entertaining enough tale.

The Queer Case of the Cyanogen Poisoning is much better. A wealthy family is being slowly poisoned. That much is obvious. Unfortunately even though every item of food and drink with which they come into contact has been analysed no trace of poison can be fond. Even the air in their house has been analysed, with similarly negative results. And yet the stubborn fact remains that they are being poisoned. The solution in this tale is pretty clever.

The Bond Street Poisoning Bureau is a different kind of poisoning tale. A sinister character known as Kahmos is operating a kind of one-man Murder, Inc in London, making a very lucrative living poisoning inconvenient relatives for clients who need their inheritances sooner rather than later. Magnum makes use of some very high-tech gear (by 1913 standards) to crack this case but actually laying hands of Kahmos proves to be more tricky. There’s nothing overly clever here but there’s some decent sinister atmosphere and a rather enjoyable pulp fiction vibe as well (assuming you like that sort of thing).

The theft of gold bullion en route to the Bank of England would be a very serious matter,
but in The Mystery of the Vanishing Gold something worse is happening - the gold ingots are just shrinking! And the Bank of England is being threatened - either pay fifty thousands for the secret of the vanishing gold or it will continue to happen. It’s a promising setup for a story that doesn’t quite deliver the goods.

The Secret of the Radium Maker tells of a struggling young inventor who has discovered a way of extracting radium from pitchblende at a cost far below that of existing processes. This discovery is worth a fortune, assuming that the process actually works. Magnum is called in to verify the discovery. An OK story at best.

The Invisible Bullet is a true impossible crime story. A man is shot to death in a fourth-floor gymnasium. It can’t be suicide - he was shot twice through the back. The murder weapon cannot be found. The murderer could not possibly have escaped from the gymnasium. The solution is a matter of logical reasoning from the evidence with science playing no real role  but it’s still a very fine story and it’s a genuine impossible crime mystery that compares favourably to similar stories by much more celebrated golden age practitioners of the craft.

Stories of phoney spiritualists are a dime a dozen but The Rough Fist of Reason has some genuinely original features, and a definite sting in the tail. Magnum investigates a medium who produces some extraordinarily convincing spirit photographs, and the puzzling aspect is that Magnum is able to establish that there has been absolutely no photographic trickery. Magnum of course is still convinced the photos are phoney but proving it will be a real challenge. The one slight weakness of this story (and also of The Invisible Bullet) is that luck perhaps plays too big a part in the uncovering of the vital clue but The Rough Fist of Reason is still an extremely good story.

Science can revolutionise many areas of human endeavour, including fraud, as we discover in The Three Ends of the Thread. It all starts with a document outlining a secret new process for tanning leather, a document that disappears under impossible circumstances. A well-executed little tale with some lovely twists.

The Empty Flask is another ingenious case of a poisoning that leaves no physical evidence whatsoever and it’s another rather neat story.

The Secret Analysis is a routine spy tale of limited interest.

The Mystery of Box 218 concerns an apparent robbery. The director of the Holborn Safe Deposit are convinced that their security is foolproof and yet a pearl necklace worth fifteen thousand pounds has been reported stolen from a safety deposit box there. The directors want the mystery solved but mostly they want to avoid any publicity so they turn to Magnum rather than the police. Magnum does employ some scientific apparatus in this case but mostly he relies on good old-fashioned detecting, taking note of a strange discrepancy in the evidence of an apparently reliable witness. This is a fairly well constructed and entertaining story.

The Message of the Tide starts with a neat enough idea - a message in a bottle floating in the Thames, a message telling of a man being held captive. Magnum’s scientific approach allows him to discover roughly where the bottle was dropped into the river. Unfortunately the rest of the story is not terribly interesting and it’s rather undeveloped, a weakness that afflicts a number of the Magnum stories.

The Secret of the Tower House concerns the mysterious death of a couple of dogs. It’s the symptoms displayed by the dogs before their demise that causes the worry. Of even greater concern is the source of the infection and the explanation is certainly creepy and a bit grisly. An OK story.

Dead Leaves is a moderately interesting story involving a missing will.

The Three Henry Clarks is not a bad little tale. A man named Henry Clark sets off for Scotland Yard to request help but dies very suddenly in the street outside. Magnum finds that he has been poisoned. A terrible crime but nothing unusual, except that it follows hard on the heels of the sudden mysterious death of another Henry Clark. And while Magnum and Detective-Inspector Callaghan are pondering this mystery news comes of the sudden demise of a third Henry Clark. It’s a fine setup for a story although it turns out to be not quite as ingenious as one might have hoped.

Cleansing Fire is interesting not so much for its plot as for the very surprising identity of the culprit. Magnum is investigating a suspected case of arson on behalf of an insurance company. The insurance company is convinced that it is arson and that it was a deliberate act on the part of the factory owner. Magnum is by no means entirely convinced on either point.

The solution to the puzzle is the result of some fairly determined sleuthing by Magnum, even including a spot of breaking and entering. It’s the motivation of the act that is the big surprise here.

Red Herrings tells of an ingenious scheme to kidnap the Home Secretary. As is the case with quite a few of the stories it’s the setup for the crime that is most impressive.

One thing you have to bear in mind is that Rittenberg was writing these stories before the First World War. This is pre-golden age stuff and while the plots are often ingenious they don’t have the extreme complexity of full-blown golden age mysteries. They’re still mostly very enjoyable and sometimes quite clever and Magnum is a fun larger-than-life hero with some amusing quirks. Recommended.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Leigh Brackett’s The Secret of Sinharat

Leigh Brackett’s 1964 novel The Secret of Sinharat is an expanded version of her 1949 novella Queen of the Martian Catacombs.

There is a rebellion brewing on Mars. The ruthless and clever Kynon has persuaded a number of warring tribes to set aside their differences to follow him. The army he is collecting is drawn from the Drylands (the Martian deserts) and from the low-canal country. Kynon has employed mercenaries to train his armies, dangerous men like Luhar the Venusian and Eric John Stark. To weld his army together he holds out a fabulous promise - eternal life (of a sort anyway).

Eric John Stark is Brackett’s best-known character, appearing in quite a number of stories from the 1940s right through to the 1970s. He is an Earthman but was raised by barbarians on Mercury. He is a Tarzan-like figure, belonging wholly neither to the world of civilisation nor to the world of the barbarian but able to move freely and confidently in both worlds.

In this story Stark is in fact a spy. Unknown to the rebels he is working for the Earth Police Control, his job being to find out just how dangerous the rebellion is likely to be and how it can be thwarted. Stark has a twenty-year prison sentence hanging over his head, which is why he was so willing to turn spy (Earth Police Control will wipe the slate clean in exchange for his help).

It is a dangerous task that Stark has taken on, much more dangerous than he’d expected. Among Kynon’s followers is at least one man with a longstanding grudge against Stark, a man who will be satisfied only by Stark’s death. And within days Stark finds that he has made other deadly enemies. Delgaun, the leader of the contingent from the low-canal city of Valkis, clearly wants Stark dead although Stark has no idea why this should be. Stark can handle himself well enough and would be quite capable of disposing of these enemies but that is exactly what he cannot do - to do so would jeopardise his mission.

Adding to his worries is the woman Berild. Is she Kynon’s woman or Delgaun’s? Does she have plans to be Stark’s woman? She is intelligent, ambitious and entirely lacking in scruples but there’s more to her than that. Stark has seen her in the moonlight, tracing the walls of a long-dead palace, walls that no longer exist even in ruins. Those walls crumbled into dust aeons ago but Berild knew every inch of that palace. It’s a particularly effective scene showing Brackett at her most effectively moody and disturbing.

The climax of the drama will come in the city of Sinharat. Sinharat is the sort of city that Brackett loved to create. It is a dead city, the capital of a dead civilisation, but is the past ever really dead? On Leigh Brackett’s Mars you can never be sure. Sometimes the past is more real than the present. Sinharat is not just a dead city. It is a city of evil. It is a vague formless nameless evil, and it is a very ancient evil. In Brackett’s universe ancient evils are the most deadly of all.

This is a story fuelled more by atmosphere and a sense of foreboding than by action. Brackett could and did write fine action stories but her sword-and-planet tales are more often exercises in style and mood. And some of the very best of her stories are entirely lacking in action.

There is however plenty of menace in this tale. The threat of violence is ever-present, although there are things that are more to be feared than mere violence.

Berild is a typical Brackett anti-heroine. She is beautiful, fascinating and clever but trusting her is likely to prove to be unwise, to say the least. Fianna, the servant of Berild, seems like she’s going to be a typical Brackett feisty good girl but she turns out to be much more complex than that.

The ending is especially good, being not quite what we expect and yet it feels right.

The original novella, Queen of the Martian Catacombs, is included in Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks volume Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories (a volume well worth buying).

The Secret of Sinharat is a fine display of Leigh Brackett’s mastery of the sword-and-planet genre. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Ngaio Marsh's Death in a White Tie

Ngaio Marsh is celebrated as one of the famous crime queens and I’ve always been rather sceptical of the crime queens. Christie certainly deserves her reputation but to my way of thinking Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham are wildly overrated. I must admit I don’t have enough familiarity with Ngaio Marsh’s work to have any strong opinion. I thought Death in Ecstasy was OK and so perhaps the generally well regarded 1938 novel Death in a White Tie will turn me into a fan?

Death in a White Tie is very much a society murder mystery. Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn’s mother has decided that it is time for Roderick’s niece to be launched into society. Lady Alleyn has the whole debutante thing planned out. Sir Herbert and Lady Carrados are similarly occupied with the coming out of Lady Carrados’s daughter Bridget. Meanwhile General and Mrs Halcut-Hackett are launching yet another fortunate young lady into society. The Carrados’s are planning a ball which will be the social event of the season and that ball will have (literally) fatal consequences.

Chief Inspector Alleyn is at the same time busy on a blackmail case. He employs Lord Robert Gospell as an unofficial undercover operative. He has apparently made use of Lord Robert’s society connections on other cases. That ball will play a significant part in Alleyn’s blackmail case - it’s where he’s hoping the blackmailer will be trapped. It does not work out the way Alleyn had hoped. It ends in disaster. In fact it ends in murder.

The first thing to note is that this is a rather long detective novel. The pacing is leisurely, to say the least. That’s not necessarily a problem. Seeing a complex plot gradually take shape and build towards a successful conclusion can be very satisfying. In this instance the plot is certainly complex, but I’m not so sure about the successful conclusion. To my way of thinking a good murder mystery is one in which the solution, once the detective has explained it, seems self-evident. The reader is left thinking that of course it had to have happened that way. No other solution would fit all the known facts. In this book, when the murderer’s identity is revealed, I was left thinking that yes that person could have been the killer but so could half a dozen other people.

I also think that in a good mystery we can see the detective slowly putting the pieces of the jigsaw together. In this book I never really got that feeling.

The detective in all of Marsh’s novels is Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Like so many detectives of this era Alleyn is upper-class, well educated and extremely erudite. But unlike most such fictional detectives Alleyn has no real personality. We know that he’s very upper-class and very clever and he’s an awfully decent fellow and everyone admires him. Perhaps that’s the problem. He has no quirks. He’s perfect but he’s terribly dull about it. And we get no insights into what makes him tick. Detectives don’t need to be larger-than-life to be interesting. Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French is a very ordinary fellow who relies entirely on routine police procedures to solve his cases but French is a living breathing human being. Alleyn is simply a void.

The other characters are mere stereotypes but that’s no problem. The whole point of golden age detective fiction is the plotting, not the characterisation. Trying to make the subsidiary characters three-dimensional merely slows down the action for no worthwhile purpose.

Unfortunately Marsh cannot resist the temptation to introduce a romantic sub-plot. This is always a very bad idea. Even when the detective is an interesting character I have no desire to hear all about their romantic yearnings and when the detective is a bit of a bore (as Alleyn is) I’m even less interested. To make matters worse the target of his affections is  a lady artist who also has no discernible personality. The whole romance thing is poorly and unconvincingly handled (Marsh clearly knows nothing at all about men) and becomes tedious and embarrassing.

Marsh seems to have been one of those detective story writers with literary aspirations (she was entirely besotted with the arty/literary/theatre world). Like Dorothy L. Sayers she seems to have liked the idea of combining detective fiction with the comedy of manners. Unfortunately Marsh’s writing is rather pedestrian and so the first part of the book, before the murder, lacks any real sparkle. Once Alleyn’s investigation gets into full swing one might have hoped that things would get a bit more interesting but alas it doesn’t happen.

I wouldn’t say that Death in a White Tie is a terrible book. It’s just thoroughly mediocre. There’s no really strong reason that I can think of to read this novel.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

C.S. Forester’s The Happy Return

The Happy Return marked the first appearance in print (in 1937) of the last great old-fashioned English hero of fiction, Horatio Hornblower. It also established naval fiction as a very popular and lucrative sub-genre.

C.S. Forester’s dozen Hornblower novels cover the hero’s entire naval career but the publication order does not coincide with the chronological sequence of the stories. In The Happy Return Hornblower has already achieved the exalted rank of post captain and is commander of the 36-gun frigate Lydia. Later books in the series recount his earlier adventures as a midshipman and as a lieutenant.

The book opens with the Lydia making landfall in Central America after a seven months’ voyage, her stores dangerously exhausted. Captain Hornblower’s sealed orders have caused him some anxiety. He is to arm and support a rebellion against the Spanish and at the same time he is to capture or destroy the Natividad, a Spanish 50-gun warship which on paper at least totally outclasses the Lydia. It’s the sort of task that no captain would welcome. Fomenting rebellion and meddling in politics can so easily backfire and involve countless opportunities for disaster and if he fails it won’t be the men at the Admiralty who came up with the hare-brained scheme in the first place who will have to shoulder the blame, but Captain Hornblower. The chances of failure are very high and failure will spell the effective end of his career - he does not have the money or influence to weather such a storm.

Hornblower’s fears are soon realised when the situation changes radically and everything he has achieved so far turns out to have been all wrong. He has to start from scratch, and he has to fight the same battles over again.

To add to his woes he has acquired a passenger, a lady. That’s bad enough in Hornblower’s eyes but to make things much much worse she is a member of a family with the potential power to break the career of an impecunious frigate captain should that captain somehow offend her. His relations with Lady Barbara Wellesley (the sister of the future Duke of Wellington) are uneasy and they get more uneasy.

There’s as much action as you could want including an epic two-day sea battle in the middle of a gale.

Forester however was more than just a writer of stirring adventure tales. Although his books all fall within the boundaries of genre fiction he brought a definite literary sensibility to these works. There’s excitement and adventure in the Hornblower novels but there’s some real psychological insight as well.

Hornblower is a genuinely fascinating character. On the surface he is the ideal commander, a man of supreme self-confidence who always knows exactly what to do. He is a man of few words, which reinforces the impression of decisiveness and complete control. He is a strict but just disciplinarian. He has a knack for gaining the confidence and affection of those under his command.

That’s the appearance. In fact it’s all elaborately contrived. Hornblower is in reality a seething mass of self-doubts and self-recriminations. He is painfully uncomfortable in social situations. He is all too aware of his relatively humble birth and of his very modest financial circumstances. Being a member of the lower middle class he is not comfortable with the aristocracy or with the common people, which means he is at ease neither with his officers nor with the men. He is not a natural leader of men. He has had to school himself to become a leader.

In this endeavour he has succeeded. He knows how the ideal captain, the natural leader of men, should behave and he can mimic this behaviour with extraordinary success. And he has one great advantage - he really does know his job. He is a skilled navigator, he is a master tactician and however contrived his methods might be he is a superb leader of men. When the chips are down he is decisive and bold and his boldness is backed up by intelligence.

Hornblower sees himself as a fraud, almost as an actor playing the part of the great frigate captain but the irony is that he really is a great frigate captain. He is sure that the officers and men under his command despise him but in fact they admire him a great deal. Hornblower is in some ways a transitional figure, halfway between the old-fashioned heroes of swashbuckling romances and the new breed of introspective psychological complex heroes.

The Happy Return manages to be both intelligent and extremely entertaining. You can’t ask for more than that. Very highly recommended.