Monday, August 12, 2013

KILLER'S WAKE by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell is best known as a writer of historical novels, but between 1988 and 1992 he published five contemporary suspense novels with sailing settings.  The novels are all very good, and are adventure driven.  They are very much in the scheme of Desmond Bagley—men without special abilities placed in impossible situations, and must rely on their wits to survive.  To my knowledge these are the only non-historical novels Mr Cornwell has written, which is a shame, and they are likely the only he ever will write.  On his website Mr Cornwell explains:

I enjoyed writing the thrillers, but suspect I am happier writing historical novels. I’m always delighted when people want more of the sailing books, but I’m not planning on writing any more, at least not now – but who knows? perhaps when I retire.”
I recently reread Mr Cornwell’s 1989 novel Killer’s Wake—published as Sea Lord in the United Kingdom—and I enjoyed it as much the second time as the first.  John Rossendale, the 28th Earl of Stowey, is a vagabond sailor who is called home for his mother’s impending death.  He left England four years earlier on his sailing yacht Sunflower, and vowed never to return.  He left under a cloud—he was accused of stealing a Van Gogh painting from his family trust, and while no one could prove his guilt, everyone is certain of it.
Upon his arrival in England his boat is immediately broken in to, he is approached by a millionaire tycoon who wants to purchase the Van Gogh with no questions asked, he is assaulted by a pair of hired toughs, and his twin sister accuses him outright, and very nastily, of stealing the Van Gogh.  Rossendale doesn’t want to be in England, and by appearances England doesn’t want Rossendale. 

Killer’s Wake is written in first person, and while a few of the plot twists are seemingly juvenile (Rossendale determines to give the painting, estimated to be worth 20 million pounds, to an unpleasant millionaire to impress the millionaire’s step daughter) it is an immensely entertaining novel.  The prose smoothly shows the story through Rossendale’s easy going perspective, who is a likable, if stubborn and at times even maddening (think about giving away 20 million pounds when you can’t purchase your own dinner), protagonist.  The sailing descriptions are vibrant and even beguiling, and are really what separate this novel from many of its contemporary, and current thrillers—
“It was nighttime and the wind was rising.  It was England’s homecoming wind, a southwesterly, but there was nothing welcoming about in this malevolent cold force.  At dusk the wind had been force three or four, by midnight it was five and rising, by three in the morning it I’d taken in the first reef, and now, an hour before dawn, Sunflower was riding a hard force seven.”

The mystery is competently executed, but it is the pure adventure of the story, which makes it as entertaining and enjoyable as it is.  If you enjoy the older style suspense novels.  The sort where the hero doesn’t save the world, but rather only saves his world.  The sort Desmond Bagley, Alistair MacLean, Gavin Lyall, and even an early Jack Higgins, wrote you will really enjoy Killer’s Wake.  It is a throwback, even for something written and published in the late 1980s, and it is a damn good throwback.                   

1 comment:

Bill Crider said...

I read this one when it first came out in paperback. Enjoyed it.