From a contemporary Russian mail-order bride in The Culprits to a 1930s charlatan on the Mexican-American border in Dr. Brinkley’s Tower, Robert Hough’s novels reveal a capacity for carefully researched forays into strikingly esoteric areas. With his fifth book, the Toronto journalist turned author dives into the exotic waters of 17th- century Port Royal, Jamaica, when British privateer Henry Morgan was based there.
Popular culture (including the rum bearing the notorious captain’s name) has made this story generally familiar, and it’s not unknown to literary fiction, particularly Steinbeck’s first novel, Cup of Gold. However, The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan is notable for presenting “the wickedest city on Earth” with a documentary-like sense of place. Hough quickly sets the scene via his first-person narrator, Benjamin Wand. A conman chess player transported from London to Port Royal, Wand vividly describes idle men eating turtles that wash up on the beach and taverns boarded up until Morgan’s men return with plunder from the Spanish colonies. The deft conjuring of this world, including a visceral description of Morgan’s attack on a Spanish fort, is the novel’s greatest strength.
The language, especially in dialogue, generally maintains the spell. While something Shakespearian would be more technically accurate, Hough employs English from a century or two later; the result is that the argot of his criminals, sailors, and prostitutes is both accessible to a modern audience and possessed of a vintage feel.
More significant flaws conspire to make The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan merely entertaining rather than broadly successful. Wand becomes Morgan’s adviser, somewhat implausibly, because his chess skills translate into an instinct for military strategy. Their relationship, which evolves like a chess game, drives the story, but the supporting cast, including a kindly innkeeper and an honest whore, are stock characters of limited interest. This contributes to a sense that the novel’s psychology, on the whole, does not run very deep.
This review has been altered from its original version. The version of this review that appeared in print, in Q&Q’s April 2015 issue, made reference to anachronistic language in the novel’s advance reading copy that has been excised from the finished book. The finished copy of the novel was unavailable to Q&Q when our print edition went to press; this review has been amended to reflect the finished book.