Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Death Card reviewed by Bill Kirton

Fast and all action
This is an object lesson in how to sustain tension and achieve that precious goal of keeping the reader desperate to know ‘What happens next?’. From the lively opening to the cliff hanging conclusion where one conflict may have been resolved but it’s clear that others will ensue, you find yourself in the middle of hectic, violent action, witnessing the increasingly extreme and appalling cruelties of a ship’s captain whose personal vendettas and whims seem to colour all his judgements.

In fact, there’s almost a perverse pleasure for the reader in following the imaginative refinements of the punishments and retributions he conceives. His evil seems to spread to others and we even see the ostensibly ‘decent’ young midshipman Ross finding that battle is ‘such a lot of fun’ and yelling out ‘Oh, this is prima, Charlie, this is just tip-top! I have killed three men, I am certain of it! Just wait until I tell my ma and pa.’

The fortitude, bravery and honourable conduct of Charlie Raven is as nothing beside the felony and treachery of Maxwell, Swift and their supporters, whose evil seems to spread and gather strength as the tale progresses. But as we reach each seeming impasse, where ‘good’ is doomed, Needle conjures up another coup de theatre to twist the narrative off into another hectic, tension-filled direction.

In fact, the whole process, with its extremes, its excitements and the apparently irresistible force of evil is part of the best melodramatic tradition. Evil is always on the verge of triumphing and yet innocence is constantly spared. There’s always the hope and an intimation that it will prevail in the end, but not before it’s been through the wringer several times.

It’s a terrific episode, rich in the flavour of Nelson’s navy, constructed with a miniaturist’s attention to detail and certain to satisfy anyone who likes a good story, told at a cracking pace and with such evident enjoyment.