Mark Keating,
The Pirate Devlin
(Hodder & Stoughton, 2010)

In The Pirate Devlin, a captain's servant in the British navy is conscripted by pirates when his ship is taken. Through an unlikely series of events, he rises to be the pirate crew's navigator, then captain, in short order -- and comes into possession of a French treasure map that promises to make Patrick Devlin and his fractious crew all wealthy men.

This is Mark Keating's first novel, and it's a promising start to what appears to be a series in the making. Set in the early 1700s, the novel is packed with plots, counterplots, sudden turns of fortune, whores, swordplay and, of course, plenty of ship-to-ship action.

But Devlin himself is an uncertain character. Not a good man, certainly, he is also not as evil or ruthless as one might expect a pirate captain to be. He sometimes balks at shedding unnecessary blood -- not a common pirate trait by any stretch -- and circumstances often conspire to make sure the people who need killing are killed by another, sometimes accidental hand to keep Devlin's own conscience clean. And yet his treatment of his former captain -- who, it seems, was a bit stern but treated him fairly well, all things considered -- seems needlessly cruel and out of character.

Keating, too, is an uncertain figure here. I can't fault his research, which was sufficient to make the book feel real in nautical terms. But his writing lacks the polish of a more experienced author, and the story never puts readers in the moment or on the deck -- a feat a great many writers have accomplished more successfully in the footsteps of Forester and O'Brian.

So it depends, I suppose, what you're looking for. The Pirate Devlin is not a book of great depth or characterization, but as lighter fare, it's a good, pleasant read.

book review by
Tom Knapp

5 November 2011

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