Review of James L. Nelson's latest in the Wall Street Journal
THE FRENCH PRIZE
By James L. Nelson Thomas Dunne, 323 pages, $26.99
In O’Brian’s Wake
The obligatory storms and battles test the hero’s nerve. But Nelson makes these maritime staples feel fresh.
July 10, 2015 5:05 p.m. ET
Dr. Johnson thought that serving on a ship was like being in jail, only worse. He had no experience of the sea but had learned enough of its dangers, hardships and horrors. Winston Churchill, twice First Lord of the Admiralty—that is, the minister responsible for the Royal Navy—once replied to an admiral who had spoken of its traditions that these for the Royal Navy—once replied to an admiral who had spoken of its traditions that these were “rum, sodomy and the lash”; fair enough.
But the British (and Americans of the eastern states) have always been sea-faring people, and there is a rich library of naval fiction. Some of it, such as Joseph Conrad’s sea novels or Nicholas Monsarrat’s World War II best seller, “The Cruel Sea,” has been set in the time it was written. But much, not surprisingly, is historical. In England, C.S. Forester’s Hornblower novels, centered on the wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, long held the field. I delighted in them as a teenager and haven’t read them since, but I suspect that they stand up pretty well to the passage of time. This, after all, is one of the strengths of good historical fiction—it doesn’t date. As Richard Snow once wrote about Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin sequence, which runs to 21 books: “Times change, but people don’t.” O’Brian’s series, written over 30 years, acquired cult status and was admired by thousands who normally don’t read historical fiction, even by many who shrink from sea novels.
I don’t know if the same is true of James L. Nelson’s fiction, but on the evidence of his latest novel, it certainly should be. Mr. Nelson’s publishers advertise it as being for fans of Forester, O’Brian andDewey Lambdin (author of the Alan Lewrie novels), but it doesn’t really need this recommendation. Mr. Nelson—what a name for an author of sea fiction—has already written a “Revolution at Sea” saga, featuring a character named Isaac Biddlecombe, an American naval hero of the War of Independence. “The French Prize” is the first novel in a new sequence; its hero is Isaac Biddlecombe’s son, Jack, who has just been given his first command as captain of a merchant ship.
Jack is an engaging, if quick-tempered, hero and already a masterly seaman, but his command is not what he thinks it is. On the contrary, he is a pawn in a bigger game, set up to engage in an encounter with a French man-of-war that will make it look as if the American government is provoking a war against Revolutionary France. For this purpose, his employer has provided him with cannon and saddled him with a passenger, a “faux bonhomme,” who at first seems a good chap but is anything but. The political intrigue and on-shore scenes are well and convincingly done, but the real action, happily, takes place at sea, and this is terrific, compelling stuff.
Sea novels have certain conventions. A storm or two will threaten to wreck the ship, and there must be at least one battle described in vivid detail. Both storm and battle must test the hero’s nerve and ability to command. All this is more or less obligatory; the remarkable thing is that Mr. Nelson makes it seem fresh and new. His knowledge of sailing ships and how to handle them is profound, and he writes with such clarity and conviction that even a landlubber like the present writer can follow the action and be gripped by it.Yet as Robert Louis Stevenson suggested, writing of his favorite novel, Alexandre Dumas’s “Le Vicomte de Bragelonne,” “epic variety and nobility of incident” are not by themselves enough. They must be “based in human nature.” Well, Mr. Nelson’s Jack is more than an action hero; the novel is partly the story of his moral education. The faux bonhomme is not his only passenger. There is also a supercilious, well-born young cub named Wentworth, who introduces himself as “of the Boston Wentworths.” Jack takes an instant dislike to him, while Wentworth despises Jack as an ill-mannered boor. The two snap and snarl, but in the course of the novel they will learn better, and the tension will be resolved—to the benefit of their characters. I hope that Wentworth as well as Jack will feature in the sequel to “The French Prize.” They could become as compelling a double act as O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin.