Originally published in 2018
Spider John #2
Preceded by The Bloody Black Flag
Followed by A Bottle of Rum
1723–Spider John, longing to escape the pirate life he never wanted, has an honest seafaring job at last, aboard a sailing vessel, and is returning to his beloved Em and their child. But when Captain Brentwood is murdered in his cabin, Spider’s plans are tossed overboard.
Who killed Redemption’s captain? The mysterious pirate with a sadistic past? The beautiful redhead who hides guns beneath her skirt? One of the men pining for the captain’s daughter? There are plenty of suspects. But how could anyone kill the captain in his locked quarters while the entire crew was gathered together on the deck?
Before he can solve the puzzle, Spider John and his ex-pirate friends Hob and Odin will have to cope with violence, schemes, nosy Royal Navy officers, and a deadly trap set by the ruthless pirate Ned Low.
It has been a little over two years since I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Bloody Black Flag, the first book in this series. I noted in that review how that book blended elements of the mystery and adventure story genres together very effectively and I am happy to report that this is similarly successful.
This book, like the last, is set in the early eighteenth century in the years following the Golden Age of Piracy. Famous pirates like Blackbeard, Calico Jack Rackham and Charles Vane are all long dead and while their legends are widely known, there is a sense that piracy will soon be on the decline.
Spider John, an unwilling pirate, had long been wanting to return to his old life and we join him as he lies low under an assumed identity while waiting for a ship to set sail. We learn he has enlisted as a ship’s carpenter aboard the Redemption, a merchant vessel headed for Boston, and is keen to see his wife and son who he has not seen in some years. The first couple of chapters are rather leisurely paced and remind readers of John’s backstory, while also serving to update us on what has happened since the last book and reintroduce us to his friends, Odin and Hob, who will join him on the journey.
The ship sets sail as planned but things take a bloody turn when a gunshot is heard from inside the Captain’s locked cabin. The door is broken down and they find him dead with a gun in his hand and a short apologetic note on his desk. It appears to be suicide and yet John notices a few things that seem wrong with the scene leading him to believe it was murder.
As I noted in the review of the first installment, Spider John interests me as an investigator because of the challenges and limitations he faces in that role. To give an example, he is unable to read which means he is unable to properly evaluate and consider the letter as evidence, relying instead on others’ thoughts. Another is that he draws upon his own experiences rather than any formal training. That sometimes means the things he notices are a little unusual but it also helps to make his investigations feel more credible.
Spider John identifies two key questions that he will need to answer. The first is why anyone would want the Captain, who appears to be widely liked by his crew, dead in the first place. The other more technical one is that we must work out how anyone could leave the cabin after firing the gunshot. The only door was under observation from the moment the shot was heard while a hatch was locked from the inside and was also observed within a few seconds. Escape seems impossible so where did the killer go?
The problem is an interesting one, helped by Goble’s thoroughness in showing that those exits were observed by multiple characters within moments of the crime taking place. That helps to establish the reliability of the witnesses, making it clear that the room really was properly locked and that no one could have left without being observed. In short, it clearly establishes the parameters of the room.
As with the first book in the series, the fact that the murder takes place while on the water adds a little novelty and intrigue to the case a well as serving as a very effective way to close the circle of suspects. The change in setting does force Spider John to act cautiously to guard his identity but it does not fundamentally alter his nature or that of his friends. Expect plenty of salty language and occasional bursts of violence which all helps to conjure up a sense of the historical period it is set in.
There are an interesting mix of crew members and passengers aboard the Redemption, several of whom seem to be carrying their own secrets. I think it is arguable that we do not spend enough time with some of them for them to feel truly credible as suspects but I enjoyed the variety regardless and appreciated the various backgrounds and personalities they had.
While I missed some of the atmospheric touches of life aboard the pirate ship from the first book, I did appreciate that the fresh setting offers a look at piracy from a slightly different perspective while still including plenty of references to pirate lore and some of the most notorious figures from the period. Those with an interest in piratical history will find plenty to appreciate here and for those less familiar with it there is an author’s note at the end of the text that provides a little context on a couple of the names mentioned.
After the midpoint of the novel the book introduces some more adventure-themed elements, building to a pretty memorable action sequence that serves as a sort of interlude in the mystery. Goble writes this type of material really well, creating a sense of credible peril for the characters while reinforcing the setting and theme of the series. As in the first book, I really enjoyed this blend of the mystery and adventure styles and I think without it the setting would never truly come to life.
The mystery does play fair with the reader who will be given all of the information required to solve the case prior to the final accusations being made. Fans of locked room stories will no doubt recognize the significance of one of the last clues to be shared but I thought it was a fun reworking of a familiar concept that felt appropriate to the setting. It struck me as being quite credible, both in terms of someone being able to imagine it and being able to pull it off. While I had worked out who did it, why and how, I realized that there were some clues given that I had overlooked that made me appreciate the solution all the more.
Overall then I thought that this was a pretty enjoyable second installment in the series that recaptured the things I enjoyed about the first. The third volume, A Bottle of Rum, is already out and the fourth is expected in a few months so clearly I have a little catching up to do. Based on this experience I am sure I will be doing so soon.
The Verdict: An enjoyable blend of mystery and historical adventure. As good as the first installment.