I'm a devotee of nautical novels about the Royal Navy between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries, culminating with the Napoleonic Wars, after which a light seems to disappear and nothing seems as exciting again until the two world wars. Hornblower is OK, I suppose, but the true classic is Captain John Aubrey, whose entire life is laid out on my bookshelves and frequently referred to. Jan Needle is a sailor - and from Portsmouth to boot - as well as being a good historian and powerful novelist so there's hardly anyone living better equipped to write novels in the Patrick O'Brian tradition. This latest is a new departure, a new ship, a new set of characters and it brings a vista of even more delight over the next years.
When I first reviewed this book on Amazon, I foolishly said, 'This novella, ostensibly for young adults, is a cracker for all ages.' Though the 'cracker for all ages' is true enough I really did miss the point. Needle's previous nautical novels, the William Bentley series, starting with A Fine Boy for Killing, are emphatically not among Needle's many young adult novels and I should have known better than to make this simple confusion. Heigh-ho! In my defence, however, I would point out that they were first published by Andre Deutsch on their young adult list. And I also believe that they are as suitable for young adults as they are for the rest of us. The young can stand some rough language just as well as we can and they may empathise more with the attitudes shown to them by their supposed elders and betters. Anyway, a bit of fictional blood and guts never hurt anyone. Besides, these novels have an energy, a sheer narrative drive and sense of detail which comes from profound knowledge of the sea, as well as a feeling of actuality which only the real historian can bring. These features are relevant for any age-group. And the same goes for his latest series, the Charlie Raven novels.
Charlie Raven is a new midshipman on the frigate Pointer. Sadly for him, there's family history dogging him the moment he steps on board. He is the nephew of the Pointer's captain, who holds his 'milksop' father in contempt. Captain Maxwell, a fatuous bully patently unsuitable for command, makes a dead set against Charlie, nearly killing him in the first two chapters. Maxwell's sidekick Lieutenant Swift is equally ill-disposed to him and, worse, will stop at nothing to rise through the ranks to the top - which, as serious Needle readers will know, he eventually does. A dangerous pairing: Charlie's life looks to be nasty, brutish and short. The trouble is that when the real crisis comes, 'Craven' Raven always seems to be right, which is very dangerous with a captain like Maxwell. This unfortunate quality brings Charlie to a vengeful climax which is rounded off unsettlingly, intriguingly and makes us hungry for the next episode.
The Pointer's motley and vividly drawn band of officers, with few exceptions an appalling mixture of incompetence, cruelty and ignorance, makes one wonder how any naval battle was ever won by the British. Yet in many ways the real stars of the story are the rest of the crew, stroppy, blasphemous, exploited unmercifully but ever-resourceful and sometimes, given the situation they were living in, impossibly brave. Together, they add up almost to a magnificent and unforgettable single composite character.
This is a compelling narrative which rings true at every point. It brings the authentic atmosphere of the eighteenth-century naval frigate to dazzling life. A great start to a series. Having to wait for the next book is, I suppose, a necessary price to pay. Is this where Jan Needle truly takes on the mantle of Patrick O'Brian? Watch this space.