Dudley Pope,
Ramage & the Freebooters
(Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1969; McBooks, 2000)

You'd think the fleet-wide mutiny would be enough.

At the beginning of Ramage & the Freebooters, set in 1797, Lt. Lord Nicholas Ramage is "rewarded" for prior service with command of the brig Triton. Problem is, Triton is moored at Spithead, where every British naval vessel has mutinied in a just but illegal bid for better working conditions. Ramage is required to get the mutinous crew back to work, slip past the guns of larger ships in the harbor and carry important messages to various commanders off the coasts of France and Spain and in the Caribbean.

Of course, Ramage accomplishes all this with an inspired plan that has his crew -- including a handful from his former command, the Kathleen -- hauling up sails before they even know what's happening.

And that's just the introduction to this novel, third in the Ramage series, which soon places Triton at the beck and call of a Caribbean admiral with a problem. It's a problem two experienced frigate captains have been unable to solve and so, seeking a scapegoat, he gives the assignment to Ramage: find and bring to justice the pirates who have been scooping up trade vessels in the region.

The solution here will involve drumbeats and decoys, witch doctors and spies, and an exciting climax that once again proves Ramage can stand proudly among the Hornblowers and Aubreys of the fictional British Navy.

Dudley Pope is a master of this highly specialized genre, and each book of his I read locks me in even more. I can't get enough of this stuff; his Ramage is an able, fascinating character with plenty of flaws but also a keen grasp of tactics and an inventive mind.

Pope includes numerous scenes that detail a life at sea, from the beauty of the ocean sky to the onerous task of fashioning a cat-of-nine-tails for a shipboard punishment.

This volume also includes a brief but vital section dealing with the flourishing slave trade of the time. Pope handles a delicate subject well. Only an ill-conceived romance mars these pages; Ramage forgets, for a while at least, about the girl he left behind.

This quality reprint from McBooks, a poorly named but otherwise dynamic publisher focused on naval fiction, lacks only one thing to make it perfect: maps. At the very least, a map of the islands visited in the Caribbean would have made the action in this volume easier to follow.

review by
Tom Knapp

10 July 2010

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