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The rough justice of the 18th century British navy

  • May 19, 2010
In 1767 off the shore of Cape of Good Hope, the crew of British naval frigate HMS Adventure encountered what, to them, must have seemed the typhoon of the century. At the height of the powerful storm, despite Lieutenant William Landon's futile rescue attempt, Captain Josiah Markham is swept off the poop deck and overboard to his death. Fully seven months later, when the Adventure returns to London, Landon is astonished to find himself accused of murder by acting Captain James Hartsell and facing execution by hanging if he is found guilty at a court martial. When Vice-Admiral Robert Redmond, who happens to be Landon's uncle, is ordered by the British navy to preside over the court martial, he asks his friend of long acquaintance, blind magistrate Sir John Fielding to turn his formidable intellect to the investigation and to help clear his nephew's name. With the assistance of his protégé, a wide-eyed but quickly maturing 14 year old Jeremy Proctor, and his step-son, Thomas Durham, freshly returned from his two year assignment aboard the Adventure, Fielding investigates the alleged murder.

As Fielding, Proctor and Durham search for clues and witnesses in the haunts of the seamen on shore leave from the Adventure - the dimly lit brothels and filthy bars and gaming establishments that dot the seedy docks in the Tower Wharf district along side the Thames - they run into a string of reluctant witnesses, inconsistent stories of the events on the night of the storm, subsequent murders and the tortuous workings of a maritime and naval justice system apparently intent on bringing in a pre-ordained verdict of "guilty" against the accused.

Despite being an easy-reading lightweight historical mystery set in Georgian England, "Watery Grave" is definitely not a cozy mystery in the style of Agatha Christie or Susan Wittig Albert. A graphic and gritty portrayal of the rough side of 18th century London, "Watery Grave" will treat its readers to extraordinary characterization and atmospheric embellishment that brings people, time and place to life with a sparkling vitality and a sense of realism that can hardly be rivaled - the slums, the prisons, the docks, pubs, outdoor markets, upstairs, downstairs, courts, gaming houses, bordellos, street walkers, pickpockets, scamps, cut purses and thieves. Despite being a primarily land-locked investigation, the story also provides us with a colourful but up close, down and dirty examination of brutal ship board life for the seamen in the British navy of the day.

And that ending ... what can one say? Entirely unexpected but, frankly, the icing on the cake as far as the depiction of the reality of the day is concerned!

"Watery Grave", preceded by "Blind Justice" and "Murder in Grub Street" is the third entry in Alexander's highly successful Sir John Fielding series. While it does stand alone as a satisfactory mystery, readers will derive the most enjoyment if they dig into the series from the start so they can revel in Alexander's wonderful multi-story character development as well as the mystery. Up next, "Person or Persons Unknown".

Highly recommended.

Paul Weiss

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Paul Weiss ()
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   A modern day dilettante with widely varied eclectic interests. A dabbler in muchbut grandmaster of none - wilderness camping in all four seasons, hiking, canoeing, world travel,philately, … more
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