Sharpe’s Prey (Reviews)

20 Feb, 2002
The Boston Globe

In the early morning of July 4, 1940, the British Navy opened fire on ships of the French fleet anchored in the harbor at Mers-el-Debir, Algeria, to prevent them from being taken by the Germans after the fall of France. Some 1,257 French sailors were killed in what historian Robert O. Paxton has called a “painful act of Realpolitik”. The British had done much the same thing before, in 1807, when they laid siege to Copenhagen to prevent the powerful Danish fleet, anchored in the city’s harbor, from being handed over to France, whose army was massed on the Danish border. In that attack, some 1,600 civilians inside the city were killed, along with hundreds of Copenhagen’s militia defenders. This even more tragic act of Realpolitik is the basis for Bernard Cornwell’s latest entry in his series of novels chronicling the exploits of Richard Sharpe, a British officer in the wars against Napoleon. Here, he is just a few years older than when he first sees action as a private soldier in India in ‘Sharpe’s Tiger’. This is the 18th Sharpe novel – the fifth in chronological order – and it is good to report that Cornwell, British-born but living now on Cape Cod, remains every bit the master of historically informed, well-crafted plots. In ‘Sharpe’s Prey’, Cornwell starts with an assassination in a London alley that is as sudden as it is unexpected, and which propels the plot into a thicket of double-dealing and treachery. With Cornwell’s Sharpe novels – as with his Civil War novels – the battle scenes are plotted with a tactician’s eye and reported from the viewpoints of both the commanders and the troops. Here, the set piece is a lopsided engagement outside Copenhagen. So mismatched are the opposing forces, the highly trained British riflemen with whom Sharpe serves vs. the ill-equipped Danish militia, that it came to be known as “the battle of the wooden clogs”. Frequent readers of military fiction will admire Conwell’s skill at rendering even such an unequal contest with drama and tension. But if the battle scenes can be taken as a given, in Cornwell novels – along with bittersweet servings of PG-13 romance – it will be the wonderfully imagined incidents that stand apart from the main thread of the story, even while they contribute to it. Sharpe grew up in an orphanage – a pretty foul workhouse, it seems, providing a too-neat contrast to the Copenhagen orphanage with which Astrid, the romantic interest, is involved. But there Sharpe had learned the dismal skills of a chimney-sweep, which he uses to escape from a locked and shuttered room. “Sweeping was a death sentence,” Cornwell writes as Sharpe confronts the empty fireplace. “Some boys got trapped in chimneys and suffocated, while the rest were coughing up bloody scraps of their lungs long before they were full grown. So Sharpe had run away and had never stopped running since, but now he must try and climb like a sweep . . . Go up this shaft, he told himself, then drop down the other. It will be easy, he tried to reassure himself, a ten-year old could do it.” What follows are three pages of good, if grubby, suspense. The reader can predict the consequences after British troops land outside the city. But the scene at a small fishing village provides Cornwell with a mockingly poastoral interlude: “The Lieutenant Colonel truned to watch for the boat carrying his horse. The (village) pastor approached him, ‘May I ask why you are here?’ the pastor inquired in good English . . . ‘Do you mean us harm?’ (he) asked nervously. ” ‘Nicolson!’ the Lieutenant Colonel shouted at a surprised private standing in the front rank of a company drawn up on the beach. ‘Shoulder your piece! Aim at the sky! Cock! Fire!’. Nicolson obediently pointed his musket at a wisp of cloud and pulled the trigger. The flint fell on an empty pan. ‘Not loaded, Father’, the Lieutenant Colonel told the pastor. ‘We ain’t here to kill decent folk, not on a nice morning. Come to stretch our legs’, he smiled at the pastor.” For the reader, whether a long-time follower or someone coming on Sharpe (or Cornwell) for the first time, there is a nice sense of anticipation that comes with the novels – not with picking up ‘Sharpe’s Prey’ but with putting it down as “the smoke of a broken city vanished in the dark”. There has to be another Sharpe novel, but will Cornwell move him ahead in time (‘Sharpe’s Devil’, the latest in chronological time, takes place in 1820-21), or will he go back and fill in one of the gaps in Sharpe’s military career? Either way, it will be welcomed.