Captain in Calico

Written by George MacDonald Fraser
Review by Cecelia Holland

Readers know the late George MacDonald Fraser as the author of the Flashman series, that wickedly funny long-term diatribe on the grim costs of glory. Captain in Calico is a previous work, when Fraser was still finding his way; here he is doing full-on Harold Lamb, without the master’s redemptive edge.

Set in early 18th-century Jamaica, Captain in Calico stars the notorious pirate Calico Jack Rackham, here shown chasing a king’s pardon, or a woman, or a ship full of silver, depending on the needs of the plot. Fraser’s love of a well-endowed woman finds a worthy outlet in Anne Bonney, splendid and cruel. “The woman in the carriage was tall, and quite the most vivid-looking creature Rackham had ever seen.” She sweeps him off to her bed, goes on to demand he let her torture somebody, all through she leaves him awed and amazed, never quite up to her furies, entirely too nice.

Fraser’s best work here is, as it would be later, the scenes in taverns, the dialog, the atmosphere. In action scenes he always fell into the movie trap of trying to jam everything together into a single Brueghalesque moment. “One moment the brig had been drowsing peacefully in the calm, the next she was a madhouse of blindly scattering men.” Like much of the novel (which Fraser himself thought unpublishable), this shows a writer still assembling his skills, testing out his material, and just waiting for the right cad.