The further adventures of Matthew Hawkwood, soldier, spy, Bow Street Runner. At the height of the wars with Napoleon thousands of French prisoners are condemned to the hulks: converted, half-rotten men-o’-war anchored in the Thames. Many die from starvation, disease and the brutality of the guards and their fellows. A very few escape into the Kent marshes, where the Admiralty suspects local Free Traders are smuggling prisoners back to France in exchange for brandy. The first naval officer to investigate is murdered and the second disappears. The Bow Street Runners are called in. Hawkwood is ordered in as an undercover agent in the guise of an American fighting for the French. He is sent to the Rapacious where he finds conditions far worse than his familiar London rookeries. With a fellow prisoner, a French privateer, Lasseur, Hawkwood escapes from the hulk but that is the easy part. To locate and break up the smuggling ring proves his most dangerous assignment yet
McGee has set himself two interesting problems. First, as Hawkwood is masquerading as a French ally, the cruelty of the guards and the appalling conditions he and the prisoners suffer make the British the baddies – an eye opener for Hawkwood and for the reader. Second, in Resurrectionist, he was an interesting “hero”: tough, cynical and ruthless yet with a moral depth that was admirable as well. Here, in Lasseur, McGee has created such an appealing character that in the first half of the novel, Hawkwood fades and does not reassert himself until the last 150 pages. Perhaps this is why, although always entertaining, the first sections seem overly long. When the action picks up, it really picks up and in the second half, the novel is unputdownable. The period detail is strong although the dialogue owes more to the 21st century than 1813. Normally, this irritates me but in this case it works. This is an interesting, gripping series of novels with an intriguing hero. I look forward to the next instalment.