Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Fox #02 - Prize Money

The 'Fox' books are an anomaly in the world of classic action/adventure series. While some of our favorite series have their roots in the tawdry paperbacks of the 1950s, and others reach back to the blood-and-thunder pulps of the 1930s - all very American - this series is completely different. It’s a British series by a British author about British history, written in the dry, formal style of British literature.

Specifically, it’s an Age of Sail series very much like the venerable works of C. S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian. The author is Kenneth Bulmer, using the pen-name Adam Hardy. Our protagonist, George Abercrombie Fox, joins the Royal Navy as an impoverished boy, and has various adventures (mainly at sea) in the very early years of the 19th Century. 

The debut paperback, “The Press Gang”, has some interesting things in it. There are memorable battle scenes between Fox’s ship and French adversaries, but the best stuff takes place on land as Fox is assigned to head up a press gang. Essentially, the press gang sneaks around the waterfront, “impressing” unwary men into the Navy by spiking their drinks or clubbing them over the head and hustling them aboard ship. This practice was unpopular but legal at the time. Anyway, after a job well done, Fox enjoys some shore leave which ends when he falls victim to another ship’s press gang! Brutality and bad luck are recurring themes of this series.

The second book, “Prize Money”, is less interesting. There are a few highlights, including a battle sequence at sea in which a very heavy cannon is torn loose from its foundation and Fox narrowly prevents it from plunging through the lower decks and the hull of the ship. There’s also a demented ship’s captain with an imaginary flock of pet pigeons. Otherwise, most of the action consists of the British Navy wandering across the Mediterranean in search of Napoleon’s navy.

Well, it’s not much of a page-turner, but I do want to give the author some credit. His prose is very elegantly written and he can describe scenes aboard ship so expressively and vividly that you can see, hear and smell every last detail. Best of all, Fox himself is a fascinating character. He’s gruff, mean and selfish, but he’s also very compelling, and sometimes you have to remind yourself that you’re reading fiction rather than history.

The series does have one formidable drawback, at least for most of us: you’re at a real disadvantage if you aren’t already pretty familiar with the architecture of these old sailing ships. The author uses a great deal of technical jargon without ever explaining any of it. Here’s an example: “He called for Mr. Lassiter and supervised the setting up of a pair of sheerlegs. As they did not have a launch they could not use her masts; but Fox decided to use the spare topmasts housed amidships.” If you’ve read a lot of Horatio Hornblower, you probably know exactly what’s happening in that passage. But personally, I never quite got my sea legs while reading “Prize Money”.