Burke and the Bedouin

Written by Tom Williams
Review by Mary Seeley

Tom Williams’ first novel about real-life Napoleonic-era spy, James Burke, was based on the factual record of his exploits in South America (His Majesty’s Confidential Agent, HNR 70 online).

This lively follow-up, set in 1798, is in the realms of the “what if”, as Lieutenant James Burke and his trusted sidekick, Private William Brown, are sent to Egypt to investigate rumours that Napoleon is planning an invasion. Unable to forestall the French landings, Burke takes to the desert, in alliance with the Bedouin tribesmen, to do all he can to hinder the French operations, whilst trying to get word to Nelson’s Mediterranean fleet, and pausing only to liberate the beautiful Spaniard, Bernadita, who has been enslaved by a dastardly Turk.

This is very much a “Boys’ Own” adventure (but also very suitable for ladies who like a little derring-do!) and is at its best in the vivid action sequences and set pieces, such as the Battle of the Pyramids and the climactic Battle of the Nile. Burke is a ruthless operator and some scenes make uncomfortable reading, although, of course, our hero’s actions can be justified as those of a soldier and a spy. As in the previous book, he and Brown are the strongest characters but Bernadita (in spite of the emphasis on her physical attributes) is not quite the archetypal “damsel in distress”, giving Burke some useful advice on fatwas!

My only real gripe is that the book suffered from niggling small editorial and typographical errors throughout. I was mystified by the Wolonial Office on page 2, and very tempted by the felucca that was later “under sale” instead of “sail”!