There is something about pirates that just instinctively appeals to me. One of the television shows that I have most enjoyed in recent years is Black Sails and ever since that ended I have been searching for my next piratical fix. It seems I have found it in the Spider John mystery novel series, the second of which will be released next month.
Spider John Rush and his friend Ezra reluctantly sign onto the crew of the Plymouth Dream after the ship they were on is sunk. Unfortunately it turns out that Ezra is known to one of the crew they join and that man broadcasts that he is a descendent of witches, suggesting that he will bring bad luck to their voyage.
When Spider John finds his friend dead with a flask of spirits and battering around his head he refuses to accept that it was a drunken accident. For one thing, he knows that Ezra didn’t drink. He vows vengeance on the murderer, even if it results in his own death.
The Bloody Black Flag is a literary mash-up of a high seas adventure novel and a traditional amateur detective story and I am very happy to be able to say that it does both genres extremely well. While most of my comments will be addressing this book as a mystery novel, I do want to stress that the adventure elements are suitably exciting and capture the danger of working on the seas and are full of details of life on the account. Even if the murder mystery element does not appeal to you, there is still plenty to enjoy here.
The idea of having a pirate character serve as a sleuth in a mystery novel feels so natural that I was surprised that I haven’t seen it done before. Pirates crews were made up of dangerous men living outside the law and keeping that kind of company it would not be surprising that they might come across bodies regularly enough to make a series credible. That challenge is finding a way to make the sleuth care about finding the truth given the danger that will surely pose to their own life.
Goble meets that challenge splendidly with the creation of his sleuth, Spider John. This is a man who has found himself living as a pirate not by choice but as a result of having been forced to enlist in a crew when he first went to sea and the boat he was working on was captured. He has a wife and child he wants to return to back in Nantucket though there seems to be no prospect of that in his immediate future.
John, by his own reckoning, is neither a good man nor a bad one. He does terrible things, being an efficient fighter, but he points out that he could have been far worse and that he does not enjoy that aspect of the work. For example, at one point he silently prays that a ship they are approaching will immediately surrender to avoid any bloodshed. He, like many real pirates, is a man who is simply doing what he needs to in order to survive.
Goble provides him with a strong motivation to look into this death by having it happen to his only friend among the crew. In the early chapters he establishes that the two men have sailed together for a long time and have developed an incredibly strong bond of trust. In spite of that though John might well have accepted the death as an accident if it were not for a clumsy piece of staging.
His skill set as an investigator is credible for a man with his background. He is naturally wary of others, has seen different types of injury (having caused a few of them himself) and is able to draw on his experiences of different crews to notice when someone is behaving abnormally. He is quite an instinctual sleuth but his reasoning for reaching the conclusion he comes to about why his friend was killed is solid and well thought through.
One aspect of his character that intrigues me but which doesn’t have much of a direct impact on this investigation is that he is largely illiterate, knowing little more than how to sign his name. This is not only an example of the author’s attention to historical detail, I can imagine that this might be an interesting challenge for future investigations and will be curious to see if it affects any of his subsequent cases.
The circumstances of the death itself are, appropriately, quite simple but what makes it challenging to solve are Spider John’s status as an outsider within the crew, making the other pirates wary of confiding in him, and a surfeit of suspects. Given how superstitious many of the crew are, their belief that Ezra might be a source of bad luck could be enough of a motive for murder in itself potentially making everyone on board a suspect. Several characters stand out as suspicious and capable of the murder (and subsequent cover-up) however and I enjoyed the process of discovering who was responsible.
The explanation of the crime is pretty clever and I did find the identity of the killer to be a surprise. There is a fair amount of repetition of a question by different characters in the final third of the novel that is frustrating and while the answer to that question will be important to the mystery, I think it does unfortunately feel a little clumsy and this is one of the few aspects of the novel that didn’t work for me.
Goble smartly combines the revelation of the murderer with some high seas action so fans of both genres will likely feel satisfied by the conclusion and he ends the novel on the sort of cliffhanger that will have you searching out the release date for the second volume (September 11th in the US). The Bloody Black Flag is a very accomplished mystery that introduces a compelling sleuth and I cannot wait to see if the second volume lives up to the promise of this first one.