Jan Needle,
Sea Officer William Bentley #2: The Wicked Trade
(HarperCollins, 1998; McBooks, 2001)

Torture. Deceit. Rape. Child molestation. Murder.

Many of the actions that take place in The Wicked Trade, the second book in Jan Needle's Sea Officer William Bentley series, are pretty horrific. It doesn't help that the majority of characters are so unlikable.

Bentley, the eponymous "hero" of the series, is here a changed man. Just 14 years old in the previous book, he is an undisclosed number of years older and just now returning to sea after a long period of recovery ashore.

Still troubled by the mutiny on his uncle's ship -- and his own role in the events -- Bentley is unsure of his place in the British navy. He is even more conflicted when his assignment places him on board the Biter, a clumsy ship commanded by an oafish lieutenant, charged with impressment -- finding and, if need be, abducting men to crew His Majesty's ships. Given the bitter outcome of his last outing with the press, Bentley is none to happy to be back at that occupation.

The only saving grace of his new posting is his senior midshipman, Sam Holt, a friendly enough chap despite his low social standing.

Even so, Bentley and the Biter spend relatively little time at sea. There are, forgive the pun, more pressing matters -- Bentley and Holt are drawn into the disappearance of two undercover customs officers, who were looking into local smuggling. When one of the men is found murdered, the two mids are asked -- rather irregularly, given their positions in the navy -- to find the other.

The book also deals thoroughly with Bentley's sexual awakening, largely through a series of coincidental meetings and mishaps with a runaway girl in danger of losing her teeth (it's a long story) to a charlatan doctor's schemes, and losing her (relative) innocence to an elaborate bawdy house and haven for lost girls. Bentley, completely smitten and entirely overwhelmed by the situation, proves shockingly inadequate to the task of protecting her.

In all, Bentley rarely seems to be the master of his fate, nor is he the heroic or resourceful protagonist we might expect after reading novels by Forester, O'Brian, Pope and Kent. He has grown in maturity since the first book in Needle's series, and I can only hope at some point he takes charge of his life more fully.

Needle seems to be a good writer, but there's no arguing his imagination is a dark place where bad people do bad things -- and generally tend to be fairly successful at it. Those who are more likely to do good in these circumstances are largely powerless to sustain it.

Maybe in the next book, Needle will give us someone to cheer for. But I don't have my hopes up.

book review by
Tom Knapp

17 May 2014

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