Easter, Patrick - 'The River of Fire'
"The matter won't wait, sir. Seems a lugger's been sent to the bottom. She's in the Lower Pool, sir. Could be the crew's still on board."
It is 1799, at the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars. Two French agents, Pierre Moreau and Andre Dubois, have been delivered to London on a secret mission. The sinking of their transport marks the beginning of their somewhat chaotic progress through London. Moreau is the brains of the operation, an experienced French agent entrusted with the details of their objectives. Dubois is a nasty piece of work, brought along as a guard-dog, prone to violence, and obsessed with revenge. Once taken off the leash, he cuts a swathe through lowlifes and officials alike.
It falls to Tom Pascoe, a former naval officer who has now found employment as a Surveyor in the newly formed River Police, to apprehend the Frenchmen before their mission can be completed. Pascoe and his crew soon find themselves battling to save London itself.
Easter has chosen his setting wisely, creating what I think may be a new sub-genre - naval-historical-crime - and he should find a readership in all three camps.
Winningly, Easter doesn't work too hard at the history. There is mercifully little exposition forced into the text and, for example, it is a while before a non-historian would cotton on to the broader context of conflict with France (and to be honest, it was a while before this historian did, but then it's not my period). Anyhow, the flavour of the period comes across nicely in incidental detail and the characters' mannerisms and speech. The naval setting is well done. The occasional nautical technicality does not interrupt the pace of the story but does give that extra bit of flavour.
"Squall it is, sir," cried Ruxey. A moment later, "Can't hold her, sir. She's broadside to the wind."
No idea what that means, but you get the gist. If you do get stuck there is a handy glossary at the back, although 'larboard' still needed looking up.
Read purely as a mystery, RIVER OF FIRE has its weaknesses. One criticism is that the story seems to take place in a very small world. Dubois and Pascoe recognise one another from a naval encounter from years ago in which Pascoe ended Dubois' short career as a corsair. Pascoe's lieutenant Tom Hart happens to know an important witness. Even Pascoe's love-interest Peggy has seen Moreau before. An even bigger coincidence emerges shortly before the novel's climax, but to reveal it would be a complete spoiler.
However, that's beside the point - if RIVER OF FIRE is anything, it's a proper old-fashioned yarn, and it stands up very well in that context.
I'd award points to publisher Quercus for their production values. The striking cover suits the book perfectly, and the map at the front is useful and authentic-looking. Fellow book nerds will also appreciate the typesetting. Widows and orphans are all down to Dubois rather than the typesetters.
The ending is a pretty clear signal that there is more to come from Tom Pascoe and his crew. I look forward to it.
Rich Westwood, England