C.S. Forester,
Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies
(Little, Brown & Co., 1957; Back Bay, 2000)

One might expect the final volume in C.S. Forester's venerable Horatio Hornblower series to end the saga with a crash and a bang. Unfortunately, Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies is one of the weaker books in the set.

Less a novel, more a collection of short tales, West Indies takes place after the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars. Hornblower is protecting trade from piracy in a much sunnier climate than we've seen him in before, but -- without the thrilling dangers of war -- this sequence of his adventures in the Caribbean seems like a cakewalk to a man of Hornblower's proven cunning and experience.

There is certainly variety here. Hornblower must deal with a plot to smuggle arms to Napoleon on St. Helena in a final effort to restore the French empire. He must stop an illegal shipload of slaves. He must match wits with landlocked pirates in the hilly passes of Jamaica. And he must deal with an idle lord who aids Spanish revolutionaries in Venezuela. All are interesting and well worth reading, but none carries to scope or grandeur of his earlier adventures. None show Hornblower -- always crippled with self-doubt -- at his best.

The book ends strongly, however, when Hornblower -- now accompanied by his dear wife, Barbara -- sails as a passenger on a ship bound for England. His service in the Caribbean is at an end, his fabled career is winding down, but he has a final foe to master: the weather itself. This chapter shows Hornblower, not as a commander of men, but as an individual with a great deal of ingenuity and courage. There is also an interesting sidebar here dealing with mercy despite the British navy's rigid regulations.

I am very sorry to see this incredible series of books come to an end. I am also sorry the journey didn't end on a stronger note. Still, I cannot regret reading a single word of Forester's prose, and I will miss looking forward to Hornblower's next adventure.

Perhaps it's time to try a little Dudley Pope on for size.

review by
Tom Knapp

27 March 2010

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