James McGee – Rapscallion (2009)

(an unused rte review)

Matthew Hawkwood, Bow Street Runner, is given the task of investigating a series of escapes from the prison-ships, or hulks, in which French prisoners were incarcerated during the Napoleonic Wars. Two naval officers who were previously sent in to investigate have disappeared. For the purposes of his mission Hawkwood assumes the alias of Hooper, an American volunteer in the French series. As no-one is to be trusted his identity is kept completely secret from the men commanding the hulk, Rapscallion, to which he is assigned. He finds that conditions there are absolutely appalling, but does make some friends, most importantly Captain Lasseur, a French free-trader, with whom he forms a close bond. Lasseur it is who arranges for their escape by guaranteeing the money with the organisation that plans them. Before this occurs they have a terrifying encounter with the rafales, who occupy the depths of the hulk and are a law unto themselves. When they do escape their adventures continue as they find that the organisation concerned is a large network of English free-traders run by a ruthless criminal.

Rapscallion is the third in the Hawkwood series. The book is basically an historical adventure story ; there is no mystery to speak of and the chain of events is pretty obvious at every stage. Unfortunately apart from its sense of narrative there is little to recommend the book. The characters are somewhat stereotypical – brave goodies and cruel baddies, with a beautiful and spirited heroine thrown in. The book is highly testosterone fuelled with a number of fights of varying kinds. Hawkwood himself is your standard slightly nourish hero – a rough diamond, but without any depth or real qualities to engage the reader. The historical background is adequately portrayed, but again lacks any real depth or special perspective which would mark it out, other perhaps than in the detailed description of the conditions on the hulk. There is an unfortunate lack of any variation in tone or pace ; event follows event with little pause for reflection, let alone a comic interlude. What one is left with is the narrative itself; certainly this is kept at a high tempo but the true masters of such narratives know that it is in the variations in pace that a higher level of artistry is to be found.

There is nothing which is especially bad about Rapscallion; it is certainly not badly-written, but the absence of any depth of characterisation, varying of pace and tone, mystery in the plot or committed historical perspective mean that it comes over as formulaic. If the high-tempo, high-testosterone historical adventure formula is to your taste then this book would be well worth trying. Otherwise I regret to say that it is probably better avoided.