Jan Needle,
Sea Officer William Bentley #3: The Spithead Nymph
(McBooks, 2003)

I'm not sure why I keep reading this series.

The protagonist, William Bentley, isn't all that appealing as a main character. He's no hero, certainly, and he isn't all that easy to like. He's not the monster he was in Jan Needle's first novel in this series, A Fine Boy for Killing, and he has developed something of a conscience and a sense of duty. Even so, he might make a fine supporting character, but he's a poor foundation for the book.

No one else really steps up to fill the gap. The people in The Spithead Nymph aren't good people, by and large; the most they earn is pity for the ringer Needle puts them through.

And yes, Needle certainly believes the life of a British navy man -- sailor and officer alike -- is a pretty hard-luck life. Things just don't go well for anyone. The same must be said for Bentley's true love, Deb -- the eponymous "Spithead nymph," or sailor's whore -- whose life just stumbles from bad to worse.

And the rampant racism of the book -- even after acknowledging that, yes, it was a racist time in the world and such attitudes were common -- makes this a pretty hard slog. It's an ugly, brutal tale, and I took little pleasure in reading it.

Which is a shame, since Needle is a fairly good writer. I just wish he wasn't quite so relentlessly dark.

I believe there's one more book in the series. I haven't decided yet if I should read it or not.

book review by
Tom Knapp

14 June 2014

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